Covid inquiry will be a reminder of the mess with PM Rishi Sunak front and centre

Westminster is slowly gearing up for an election, but there is a growing consensus among Tory MPs that it is one that cannot win.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has to keep his eye on the ball to win the next election.Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has to keep his eye on the ball to win the next election.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has to keep his eye on the ball to win the next election.

The Tory party is a broad church, as the saying goes. It includes a range of factions at odds with each other on policy, but able to get past those differences to maintain themselves in Government.

Before winning his historic majority, Boris Johnson undid this to an extent, removing the whip from MPs who did not back him or his idea of what Brexit could be. It was a ruthlessness that his position afforded, but one that alienated a grouping of MPs who did not agree.

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This targeting of the Tory left continued under Liz Truss, who, after running on a platform that anything could happen, experts are wrong, then appointed a cabinet of loyalists who shared her anti-intellectual agenda.

Then came Rishi Sunak, who was considered rightly or wrongly to have helped displace the last Tory leaders, which upset elevated MPs, and sparked a not-so quiet civil war.

Since winning, his premiership has been undercut by constant reminders of Mr Johnson, who this week decided to blow up the Conservative party, as he and two allies sparked difficult by-elections that will only damage the party. Backers of former Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP Johnson believed the prime minister was out to undermine him, so revenge was easier than working things out.

The sharks are circling, and supporters of the prime minister are worried, questioning his decision-making, and suggesting that, for a man seemingly reared for this, he lacks the political judgement for it.

Nowhere has this been clearer than the Government response to the Covid inquiry, an event which one MP told this newspaper could be a “nail in the coffin” for the Tories’ electoral prospects, and showed the “political nous of a teenager”.

The issues began when the Cabinet Office and Mr Sunak began to refuse to hand over documents without redacting them first, or simply not hand them over at all.

Mr Johnson offered his own WhatsApp messages without being censored, something the Cabinet Office then sought to block, much to the chagrin of the former prime minister.

Now the UK Government is seeking a judicial review of Lady Hallett’s right to see uncensored material, trying to use legal action to prevent the inquiry chair having access to all the information that the inquiry asks for.

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On 28 April Lady Hallett ordered the Cabinet Office to hand over all messages on the phones of Mr Johnson and a No 10 aide, Henry Cook about the pandemic. These included WhatsApp messages sent from and to other senior figures in government – including Mr Sunak – as well as his former special adviser Dominic Cummings. A bundle of about 24 notebooks kept by the then-prime minister was also requested.

The traditional “30-year rule” ensures that such messages aren’t seen until long after several administrations have come and gone, to provide privacy to discuss and debate policies.

However, for an inquiry, things are not the same. Mr Sunak insists the Government has handed over “thousands” of documents, but trying to keep some back does not scream transparency. It also makes a mockery of previous attempts to not talk about how the pandemic was handled, with Mr Sunak and others having stressed repeatedly it was right “to wait” for the inquiry.

In a sign of just how difficult the Cabinet Office is finding the situation, its lawyer Nicholas Chapman this week told the inquiry “the position is the Cabinet Office is working out its position”.

The refusal to hand over all the documents was not just played out behind the scenes, but now in a public inquiry.

Speaking at a preliminary hearing, Brenda Campbell KC, representing Northern Ireland families, said the Government’s fresh attempts at secrecy and delays were adding to the “damage already done to public confidence… expressed across the kitchen table from which loved ones are absent”.

Given government hopes that the inquiry would restore public confidence, that is deeply damaging. The public supported and backed the government during the pandemic, understanding the scale of such an unprecedented healthcare crisis. But “Partygate” and scandals over PPE changed that. Refusing to hand over documents now looks like the Government has something else to hide.

One Tory MP told The Scotsman the situation showed a “political naivety that I just don’t comprehend”, suggesting people will realise "if that smells s**t it probably is".

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They added it was like having a “12-year-old run Downing Street, one with zero understanding of how politics works”.

Another Tory source admitted it was “bad politics”, but insisted it was the cost-of-living issues that were a bigger problem for the party.

They explained: “Partygate and the pandemic is all priced in, but it’s going to be the cost of my mortgage or buying food that could hurt us.”

As damaging as the transparency issues are, there are also concerns in Whitehall about the frequent updates the inquiry will offer. Lady Hallett and her team will make regular reports, complete with recommendations for action as well as key findings. This is not one big verdict after many years, it could be constant reminders of Government failings, and as such a regular headache for Mr Sunak.

It is a sweeping review, including bereaved families, the NHS, police chiefs, the British Medical Association, the Long Covid group and more, all of which could be banana skins for ministers. Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was a member of the Sage committee of advisers to ministers has already labelled Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme as “spectacularly stupid”. It is believed to have caused a rise in cases of the virus.

The Covid inquiry is just the latest risk to Mr Sunak’s chances of winning the next election, something he’d already told MPs they just had a “small window” to achieve. The great risk is that the inquiry is not just about him, but all factions lumped together, fighting in a sack that’s spilling over into public view.

This issue of decision making has come up time and time again with Tory MPs, many of whom were desperate for a clean slate after the chaos of Ms Truss. They hoped Mr Sunak could make politics boring again after a scandal-ridden few years. In truth, the frustration has only been more profound, with a successive series of own goals damaging his narrative.

There was the incident with his car seat belt, when Downing Street uploaded a video of the prime minister not wearing one – which promptly landed him another fixed penalty notice.

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Then there are his appointments – questionable loyalists or those with aspirations for his job whom he needed to keep close. First was Gavin Williamson who was named minister without portfolio. That was always a ticking time-bomb, which exploded with revelations he’d bullied staff. Sunak’s close ally Dominic Raab – the deputy PM – was also found to have bullied staff, while Nadhim Zahawi was sacked as the Tory party chairman following a damning investigation into his tax affairs.

These departures did not just damage them, but also the prime minister’s credibility and ability to control a news cycle.

Then there is Suella Braverman, previously sacked for sharing sensitive government information through her personal email, but now home secretary again despite a series of near misses. Ms Braverman asked political staff and civil servants to help her avoid a speeding course to keep it quiet. In doing so, she distracted from Mr Sunak’s trade arrangements in Japan, and once again made him look weak.

On the right of the party, Ms Braverman has frequently criticised government policy, but Mr Sunak is too weak to sack her, undermining his authority which only creates further dissidence in the broad Tory church.

Then there was Mr Johnson who, at his peak, one commentator suggested was squatting like a “giant toad across British politics”, with Labour unable to find a gap. Mr Sunak’s former colleague, who argued Brexit would restore the sovereignty of parliament, is now irate that its committees have power. Jumping before he could be pushed, it is telling Mr Johnson spoke of leaving parliament “for now”. Even after all his scandals, his supporters still believe he will be leader again. He faces further police investigations over lockdown breaches, with more revelations about his conduct drip feeding to both the public and authorities, but he does not think it matters.

Mr Johnson does not consider these to be consequences for his actions, but rather a conspiracy, an attempt to damage his chances of coming back. This is a view shared by his many, albeit quiet supporters, who, despite everything, waited for a reason to once again try to oust Mr Sunak.

Mr Sunak had hoped to calm things down, waving through most of Mr Johnson’s resignation honours list. However, in vetoing Nadine Dorries lest she call a by-election, she forced one anyway. Another bad decision, another enemy within the party.

One minister backed Mr Sunak to turn it around. They said: “The Tory party always does this, we fight, there’s rumours of a split, and we come back together. The Conservative party knows how to maintain itself in government, and Rishi is getting on with the job.”

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All of this comes as a new poll by Focaldata for Best for Britain found Labour would win 470 seats if a General Election was held now, giving them a majority of more than 140 seats.

Polling changes, but it hints at the scale of the challenge facing the prime minister.

He faces a Covid inquiry, a resurgent Labour party, a cost of living crisis, and the task of bringing his own party back together. The sharks are circling.



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