Rishi Sunak has only been UK prime minister for just over a month and is already facing multiple challenges to his authority from rebel Conservative MPs.
With Tory strategists earmarking the winter of 2024 as the most likely date for the next general election, Sunak has less than two years to revive the slowing UK economy, improve stretched public services and implement some of the party’s core 2019 manifesto commitments.
But senior Conservatives believe Sunak’s biggest hurdle to winning the next election will be whether Tory MPs are willing to rally behind his leadership.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary and a close ally of ex- prime minister Boris Johnson, on Tuesday said MPs would be “ill-advised” to make life difficult for Sunak’s government.
“I think if the Conservative party wants to win the next election we have to support our current leader and we therefore have to vote for what he puts in front of us, unless it is something that singularly disadvantages one’s own constituency,” he told the ConservativeHome website.
Four rebellious tribes of Tory MPs appear to be seeking to derail Sunak.
The ‘heartland defenders’
Sunak’s natural supporters should be centrist Conservatives aligned to his agenda, but some of these Tory MPs representing constituencies in the party’s so-called blue wall in southern England are rebelling amid a challenge from the Liberal Democrats.
The biggest concern among the Conservative MPs is the government’s planning reform in England to boost housebuilding: they believe that relaxing restrictions will lose the Tories scores of seats, particularly in the prosperous home counties such as Kent and Surrey.
The MPs are effectively clashing with the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto commitment to build 300,000 homes a year — a target aimed at wooing pro-Brexit voters in northern England and the Midlands.
Damian Green, the former deputy prime minister and MP for Ashford, is a notable figure in this tribe. He is one of 60 Tory MPs who have signed an amendment to remove supposedly arbitrary housebuilding targets from the government’s levelling-up bill.
Green said in a recent article he wanted a “responsible” planning system that would propose “realistic targets” for building houses. He said he was not seeking a rebellion, adding: “We can take the heat out of the debate, and we can all be friends again.”
Liz Truss had a disastrous short stint as prime minister, but some of her backers in the Conservative parliamentary party are eager to persist with parts of her radical reform programme.
Truss’s tribe — some linked to rightwing think-tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs — are seeking to curb restrictions on onshore wind farms.
Simon Clarke, the former levelling-up secretary and a key Truss supporter, has proposed an amendment to the government’s levelling-up bill that would make it easer to erect more onshore wind turbines.
He said: “It is the cheapest form of energy generation bar none. It will boost our energy security, help us on the path to net zero and ease the cost of living squeeze.”
Clarke has opposed efforts by the ‘heartland defenders’ tribe to stymie planning reform. “We are meant to be the party of opportunity, and we are pulling up the ladder for everyone under 40,” he said.
The MPs most opposed to the prime minister and his agenda are supporters of Johnson, who accuse Sunak of playing a key role in ejecting his predecessor from Downing Street.
The most notable Johnsonite is Sir Jake Berry, the former Tory party chair who Sunak sacked.
While on the backbenches, Berry has questioned Sunak’s judgment in reappointing Suella Braverman as home secretary amid controversy over her treatment of asylum seekers and use of personal email for government documents.
Berry has also criticised Sunak after bullying allegations were made against Sir Gavin Williamson, the former Tory chief whip. Berry suggested the prime minister had been told about the allegations before appointing Williamson as minister without portfolio. Williamson quit this month, saying he wanted to clear his name.
The MPs in the Johnsonite tribe have little regard for Sunak’s mandate and how he was elected leader by the parliamentary party. One former cabinet minister who backed Johnson said: “Rishi made our lives very difficult throughout this year, why shouldn’t we do the same to him?”
The ‘don’t cares’
Despite the election being some way off, about a dozen Conservative MPs have announced they will stand down. Some of these are veterans, such as former Tory whip Sir Gary Streeter, 67, who has represented South West Devon since 1992.
But others are young and have decided to leave politics: notably Dehenna Davison, the 29-year-old who became the first ever Tory MP for Bishop Auckland. She is a junior minister at the levelling-up department.
Davison’s constituency is one of the so-called red wall seats seized by the Tories off Labour at the 2019 election. With a 7,962 majority, her seat is one of those most likely to remain blue.
She said she wanted a more normal career. “For my whole adult life, I’ve dedicated the vast majority of my time to politics . . . but, to be frank, it has meant I haven’t had anything like a normal life for a twenty something,” said Davison.
But she is not alone in her impending exit from politics. William Wragg, the 34-year-old MP for Hazel Grove, is also planning to stand down at the next election. Likewise Chloe Smith, the 40-year-old MP for Norwich North.
The challenge for Sunak is that the MPs in this tribe risk being unbiddable: some have no reason to back his government.
One Tory MP who is retiring said: “We don’t care anymore and can do what we like.”