Insight: Who are the Tory right unhappy with Rishi Sunak and how does he plan to stop them?
But the “good” news is that most of them were already unhappy before this week, with Mr Sunak’s controversial reshuffle and losing attempts to overturn a court ruling blocking the Rwanda scheme issues which escalated unhappiness, rather than instigated it.
Speaking to Conservative MPs, it’s clear the divisions in the party are widening, while the window through which the Prime Minister claims he can win the next election narrows. Things are bad, with many Tory MPs saying the party is in a “death march” to the next election, drifting along before the electorate puts it out of its misery.
Some Tories are resigned to this, with one former minister describing the party to Scotland on Sunday as “tired and in need of a reset for an election or two”. However, others are keen to go down fighting, even if it is with other Conservatives.
To understand these factions, who they are and their influence, it’s important to consider how we got here. No political grouping comes out of nowhere and all have their grievances. Former PM Boris Johnson was able to hold together a broad coalition of voters based on his electoral success in 2019, winning the traditional support, but building on it with voters attracted by Brexit, or those disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
Mr Sunak does not have that mandate, so lacks the record of electoral success that Mr Johnson used to dampen criticism or complaints over his Government.
It is the MPs on the right of the party who should most concern Mr Sunak. Various small but powerful factions who regard him as a traitor to Mr Johnson, an uninspiring leader with no vision, and someone without conservative values. Some figures believe it’s just one issue, others think it’s all three.
On the one hand, there’s the legacy element of the Tory right, the economic free-marketeers. These are MPs such as Sir Simon Clarke, John Redwood, and Kwasi Kwarteng, who put tax cuts and “small” Government above all else. Perhaps totalling 60 MPs in the party, they are the thinkers who feel Liz Truss didn't get enough time for her disastrous mini-budget to work, or believe the principles were not applied properly.They are often associated with the Institute of Economic Affairs or the Centre for Policy studies, and hold their roots in traditional conservatism. They are inclined to challenge Mr Sunak over growth, urging him to slash red tape and cut taxes, stressing the need to help “hard-working families”. That group also includes, though not an MP, the Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, who is deeply critical of Mr Sunak and constantly urging a reset of his policies.
Despite their power, this is the group Downing Street has the easiest job in bringing back around. Members of this group have already said they’re willing to give the Prime Minister a chance, and a rumoured cut of inheritance tax in next week’s Autumn Statement seems the easiest way to begin winning them back over.A Government source said: “The Prime Minister has consistently said he wants to lower taxes, but the biggest tax cut we could give the public was to lower inflation. That has been halved, and in sticking to the plan we will continue to look at ways to help the taxpayer.”
These MPs are not necessarily supporters of Ms Braverman, not least because Ms Truss fired her. In the libertarian movement of MPs, there is a belief that immigration creates growth, though it is not a view they articulate publicly. As a result, comments about a “hurricane” of asylum seekers and the general tone of her comments made MPs uncomfortable, with many of them relying on more liberal voters to elect them.
One MP said: “I actually think Ms Braverman’s conduct since being fired has been deeply damaging. If she had all these complaints, why didn’t she resign? It’s all about being leader and nothing to do with good government.”
However, former minister Sir Simon Clarke argued failure to deal with migration will see the party lose out to extreme voices on the right, and suggested it is “not right” if the UK’s human rights framework makes controlling borders “undeliverable”.
Then there are the Red Wall MPs, who were generally deeply loyal to Mr Johnson and put immigration above all else. For them, Brexit was about tighter borders rather than going out in the world, and they are more likely to complain about culture wars than tariffs. They argue for harsher stances on law and order,
This includes MPs such as Jonathan Gullis, Eddie Hughes and Mark Jenkinson – outspoken Tories who are also part of the New Conservatives. This is a group of around 20 MPs, and includes the Tory deputy chair, Lee Anderson. In a sign of their power, when Mr Anderson said Britain should ignore the law and put asylum seekers on planes to Rwanda anyway, Downing Street did not sack him, instead stressing that they understood people had strong feelings on the issue.
These are ardent supporters of Ms Braverman, and had threatened to mobilise even before she was sacked, with rumours of resignations to stop it happening. As it was, Ms Braverman was ousted and nothing happened.
A letter followed, from the New Conservatives – co-chaired by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, MPs who pride themselves on “common sense” and traditional Tory values. The group accused Mr Sunak of deciding “to abandon the voters who switched to us last time, sacrificing the seats we won from Labour in 2019 in the hope of shoring up support elsewhere” but declined to call for him to go. This group is angry, but there is a confidence among MPs on the left that the complaints are about protecting their own seats, rather than trying to force Mr Sunak out.
One MP said: “Something has to change, and people have been pretending for too long that things are OK, MPs briefing we might win the by-elections, are they f****ing insane?”“We should be leaving the ECHR, threatening to stop paying France if they won’t help us but actually do something. Nobody seriously wants to remove Rishi, but he’s got to stand up and be actually Conservative”.Another expressed anger about the appointment of the now Lord Cameron as foreign secretary, questioning what it said to their voters.They said: “This guy was the biggest remainer, and look, I’m happy for him, he’s probably missed it and went too soon, but he told our voters they were stupid now he’s come back? Were there no MPs Downing Street trusts?”.
Finally there are the MPs who don’t quite fit into either camp, dipping their toe in both to test the water, but generally holding a sense of unhappiness with the Prime Minister. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg is one, removed from the cabinet by Mr Sunak, and now a frequent critic on his GB News show. The business secretary Kemi Badenoch is also a critic, but her threat is more behind the scenes, with MPs expecting her to run for leader after the election.
The question for Mr Sunak is what to do about them, whether to calm or ignore, placate or purge. As he vows to make the Rwanda scheme work, albeit not through leaving the European Convention of Human Rights, it appears Downing Street hopes to assure rebellious right-wingers without caving on legislation he knows his new foreign secretary would oppose.
One Tory MP: “The party has left me, and the thing is, they’re all mad, absolutely mad, but that’s the coalition Boris built. This isn’t the Tory party I joined, but he’s placating them, and will say terrible things because we haven’t got a clue of what to do.”
The Government is now stressing its commitment to the Rwanda scheme, hoping to assure those on the Tory right but there is no hint of Britain leaving the ECHR. Instead, Downing Street will try to show intent, knowing full well given the time frame to next year’s election, expected in May, that there is no realistic chance of any flights before then.
Asked about party management, one former minister argued “it doesn’t really matter now”, with the expectation of such a brutal election result that policy is no longer as important.They said: “I don’t think it really matters now. I’m sanguine about it. We are going to lose hundreds of MPs, I think the next election is dead, over, we haven’t got a chance, and it’s now about winning as many seats as possible, and damage limitation.
“When it comes to handling the right, it’s just about calming them down. There isn’t a clear challenger, and it’s hard to say who will be because we don’t know who will be left.
“We could lose brilliant people who could be leader like Penny [Mordaunt] and end up with just mad MPs, or the sensibles could survive to build a way back.
The right is a threat to Mr Sunak’s authority. But, with the polling as bleak as it is, the Prime Minister can’t risk another purge, so can only hope they come back around as the General Election looms.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.