LONDON — Britain’s Conservative Party is famed for its survival instinct. But with electoral defeat on the horizon, Rishi Sunak’s MPs are out for themselves.
While the party languishes in the polls, the coming election could yet be some nine months away — a form of slow torture if you’re a Tory MP.
And in this period of purgatory, MPs are left to dwell on their own future — with many concluding they would prefer to spend it outside parliament.
Those who remain are making their own private judgments about their best chance of survival — whether it’s forsaking Westminster to campaign hard in their own backyards, or becoming a thorn in the government’s side on issues they see as vote-winners.
But that’s led to a sense of drift and desertion around the House of Commons, with MPs frequently absent unless they are obliged to show up and vote.
“There is no doubt that every month that goes by, people are going to be more distracted by what’s happening in their constituency and what they can do to save their position,” said one Conservative MP in a marginal seat. Like others in this article he was granted anonymity to speak frankly about internal Tory politics.
It’s not good news for Sunak, as he tries desperately to find a message to rally the troops as they head into an election year.
Eyes on the prize
Fifty Conservative MPs have so far announced they will stand down at the next election, compared with 14 on the Labour side. One jaded parliamentarian — Chris Skidmore — has decided he cannot bear to wait until then, choosing to quit and force a by-election instead.
Anthony Wells, director of political polling for YouGov, says some MPs with larger majorities can comfort themselves that the polls are likely to narrow closer to the election.
However, he adds: “While there has often been a narrowing, I can rarely think of a leap. I don’t think past historical narrowings really give them many examples that would overturn a lead of this scale.”
Even some of those sticking around have voluntarily given up what would normally be coveted government jobs, with a wave of experienced ministers opting to quit in the last reshuffle.
It’s received wisdom around Westminster that many of these, whether intending to stand again or not, already have one eye on their next move after parliament.
The shock resignation of Robert Jenrick, a Sunak ally, over perceived flaws with the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, was another sign of the malaise affecting parts of Westminster.
Even if he is not, as rumored, eyeing the next leadership election, Jenrick has nonetheless looked around and decided the best place to be is no longer inside Sunak’s government.
All of this exerts a centrifugal force on the party just as it ought to be pulling together.
Every man for himself
The Tory party, which has been in power in the U.K. for nearly 14 years, has traditionally had a reputation for self-preservation when the chips are down.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, observes: “If anything the Conservative Party is designed to keep Labour out of power. And that means that very often, despite differences, they will pull together for that greater end.”
“I think when they’ve been in power for some time,” Bale adds, “that survival instinct begins to fade.”
Sunak, center, between Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Home Secretary James Cleverly | Pool photo by Chris Jackson via AFP/Getty Images
While there have always existed rebel bands within the party, an increasing number of MPs — especially younger ones — are calculating that their interests are no longer best served by toeing the party line and hoping for promotion.
A serving minister said: “There are those who think to themselves, I’m never going to get a chance of being in government. If I become a loudmouth, and push for a harder line on Rwanda, my constituents might at least recognize who I am.”
Perhaps even more worryingly for No. 10, many MPs report there is a general lack of personal loyalty to Sunak.
A former Cabinet minister described the current administration as “autocratic,” claiming that a heavy hand from the center is feeding into absenteeism from Westminster.
“The [Commons] chamber works when you can go in, make an argument that the minister might listen to and give you some feedback,” they said. “This government doesn’t engage with colleagues. The No. 10 view is ‘we have made a decision.’”
One MP who served as a minister under both Johnson and Sunak said there is “undoubtedly” a cohort of MPs who would like to see Sunak gone, but he is being kept in place “by the lack of obvious other options.”
There is a feeling of paralysis among Conservatives, having tried out most possible versions of leadership over the last 14 years. “It’s like someone in a burning building trying all the exits and finding they’re all cut off,” says Bale.
Sunak’s team is already digging deep to try to ward off such fatalism.
Richard Holden, the party chairman, challenged his fellow MPs in remarks last month: “My colleagues really need to decide whether they’re interested in being in government [or] would prefer to sit in opposition and watch the Labour Party.”
He has stressed to them advice passed on by Foreign Secretary David Cameron — the ex-prime minister who turned around Tory fortunes in the 2000s — that “a day in government is worth a year in opposition.”
The Conservatives’ election guru Isaac Levido will appear in front of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs on Monday to brief them on the polls — and presumably on areas where they might make gains. The Spectator reports Tory MPs have been invited for fortnightly drinks in the PM’s parliamentary office.
The same serving minister quoted above said MPs fighting for their seats were mistaken to think their best hope was going rogue. “Constituents who are concerned about immigration want to see us delivering legislation to deal with it, not fighting among ourselves,” they said.
Sunak is trying desperately to find a message to rally the troops as they head into an election year | Jacob King – Pool/Getty Images
A government adviser close to No. 10 insisted: “People are more and more thinking we have got to be united.”
There is still optimism in some quarters that more voters could be brought onside if the economic picture improves and the government finds room for giveaways at the next budget.
Yet the prevailing mood among Tories was perhaps best summed up by one ex-minister who, asked where hope was coming from in the party, simply burst out laughing.