What screams the Prime Minister being the change candidate more than the return of a former Prime Minister? Rishi Sunak shocked everyone with what might be the best kept political secret of the last decade, with not a journalist getting the scoop on the return of David Cameron. Instead, he casually strolled back into our lives seven years after his resignation as PM.
He is the first Prime Minister to come back to serve as a minister under a different PM since Alec Douglas-Home who became Foreign Secretary in 1970 following a brief stint as PM in the early 1960s. For some, Cameron is sensible politician for serious times. Unlike certain other former PMs, since leaving office Cameron has largely stayed quiet and sought to not criticise his successors – except for his extraordinary intervention against Sunak’s scrapping of the northern leg of HS2.
His return marks a throwback to a Conservative Party rooted in its traditional heartlands in the South of England and his appointment is the clearest signal yet of the type of seats the Tories want to defend when the election comes.
However, for other MPs – particularly ardent Brexiteers and the Red Wall contingent – Cameron is the architect of ‘project fear’ and see the appointment as proof Sunak is not a ‘true Tory’ and not serious about immigration.
The divide was could not have been thrown into starker relief as the Conservatives grappled with the sacking of right wing champion Suella Braverman and the Supreme Court defeat for the plans to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda. The party has been at a rolling boiling temperature all week and Sunak faces a serious test of his ability to command control over his MPs.
To reassure the Right, he had to show his backbenchers he was still serious about immigration. Cue a press conference in which he promised to continue with the Rwanda scheme and would introduce emergency legislation to designate Rwanda a safe country. Essentially, he had no choice – Simon Clarke MP said Sunak’s response to the ruling was a “confidence issue”, and some MPs had already submitted letters of no confidence. The consensus is that it would be certain defeat for the Conservatives if they had another leadership contest, but don’t underestimate Conservative backbenchers, especially when they believe that with Sunak defeat is guaranteed anyway.
To manage the moderate wing represented by Cameron he had to tread the right line on maintaining the UK’s international treaty obligations.
The bottom line after a difficult week is the Conservative Party is in the middle of a fight for its heart and soul and Sunak is resisting calls to pick a side. Yes, he showed bravery removing Braverman and brining back Cameron, but he is still trying to tell the right of the Party he is one of them.
Any electoral expert will tell you that a clear message is key, so does he want to be seen as the change candidate or as a throwback to a more centre-leaning Party? The answer to that question in the coming weeks is an essential first step to addressing the Tories dire – and worsening – position in the polls.
by Stephen Alton, Senior Account Manager