Having taken on the party leadership after months of economic turmoil, Rishi Sunak always faced a tough task in turning around his party’s fortunes. With the future of cabinet ministers already in doubt and Boris Johnson courting MPs, a series of new hurdles in the months ahead will make life even harder for the prime minister.
Officials are increasingly optimistic that a deal can be done with the EU that would ease trading obstacles between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the number of checks significantly reduced. However, this will also be a flashpoint for Tories concerned that it will force Northern Ireland to follow EU rules in many areas. Meanwhile, Conservative Brexiters are also becoming agitated over the lack of progress being made on the retained EU law bill, designed to remove EU rulings from British law by the end of the year. The bill is causing consternation in Whitehall, but is becoming increasingly central for the Tory right.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been clear that his priority is bringing down inflation, meaning that tax cuts demanded by a small band of vocal Tory MPs on the right of the party will be ignored. The problem for him and Sunak is that Liz Truss is among those planning to make an intervention soon, calling for tax cuts and a bigger growth agenda. The return of Truss as a political actor is yet another destabilising force for the prime minister, who has put political stability and calm above all other ambitions in the short term. Tory impatience will begin to ramp up once the budget is delivered.
Sunak’s political ambitions have already been dented once by the partying that took place in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. He was given his first fixed-penalty notice for attending an illegal gathering. The events that took place during the pandemic are likely to cause him further problems. A parliamentary committee is examining whether Johnson misled MPs over lockdown parties and his knowledge of them – it is said to have a huge amount of material, including new evidence – and Johnson himself will be publicly quizzed in what is likely to be Westminster’s equivalent of a blockbuster. It risks choking off a Tory poll revival.
With the fates of cabinet ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab in the hands of independent inquiries into their conduct, a difficult budget to come and former prime ministers causing trouble, the Tories face a tough trial in May’s local elections. It has been earmarked by the PM’s allies as the first serious moment of danger. There is hope for Sunak, though. The seats up for grabs were last voted on in 2019, when Theresa May was tanking in the polls. That means that the Conservative performance this time may not look so bad. But those wanting to destabilise Sunak will, no doubt, find a way to blame him for a poor set of results.
If all that weren’t bad enough, there is another obstacle put in Sunak’s path by Johnson. At some point, Johnson’s resignation honours list will be revealed. It contains a series of potential political disasters for No 10. Most immediately, a group of sitting MPs will be given peerages. Their departures will trigger byelections unless they only make the switch at the next election – a manoeuvre that could run into constitutional trouble. Given Johnson’s record of rewarding friends and useful allies, some names on the list are sure to lead to public opprobrium. The sheer size of the list is also causing concerns, with one Johnson ally saying it could contain as many as 100 names.