Has sensible Sunak turned the Tory tide, or has Johnson sunk the ship?

The PM’s Northern Ireland deal with the EU boosted his hopes – but then Partygate roared back to remind voters of Conservative chaos

Even before they were bussed off to Windsor on Thursday morning for a fun-filled awayday on how to approach the next general election, many Conservative MPs believed a corner might just have been turned in their party’s fortunes.

“This is the best week the Conservative party has had in the last year,” said Charles Walker, the Tory MP for Broxbourne. “The Conservative party’s survival instinct has kicked in big time” was his assessment.

Nearby in the same Commons corridor on Wednesday evening, former cabinet minister George Eustice, a keen supporter of Brexit, was also feeling more upbeat than for some time.

He believed that Rishi Sunak appeared to have pulled off a remarkable success with his deal on the Northern Ireland protocol. Eustice, an ex-environment secretary with knowledge of the problems caused by the protocol, had been telephoned by Downing Street last Sunday evening and asked to pop round early the next day to cast an eye over the deal.

Rishi Sunak at prime minister’s questions
Rishi Sunak at prime minister’s questions, where the Northern Ireland protocol agreement was hardly mentioned. Had the deal gone badly, he could have expected a much more uncomfortable reception. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK PARLIAMENT/AFP/Getty Images

The newspapers that morning were full of stories suggesting the prime minister might be about to betray the Brexiters and sell out the Democratic Unionist party (DUP). And they were raising questions about how Boris Johnson, still furious over Sunak’s role in ousting him from No 10 last summer, might exploit this moment of maximum danger to stick the knife in and advance his own plans to mount a sensational comeback to Downing Street.

The Daily Mail’s front page last Monday morningquestioned whether the prime minister would be able to sell the agreement he had negotiated with the European Union on trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, and its sovereign place in the UK, to his party. The paper noted that with Johnson threatening to lead a rebellion, the protocol row could “trigger another Tory civil war”.

So Eustice entered No 10 that day with a very open mind, knowing from bitter experience that Brexit negotiations were always fraught with difficulty and rarely turned out well. He did so as the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, was arriving in the UK from Brussels to meet King Charles, and then hold a press conference with Sunak to announce their deal.

The choreography of Von der Leyen’s visit to unveil the Windsor framework alongside the prime minister was intended to show that the Sunak government was approaching European negotiations differently from the days of the confrontational Johnson leadership. The UK and EU were now friends and partners after Brexit, no longer implacable foes. At their joint press conference, Von der Leyen would repeatedly refer to Sunak as “Dear Rishi”, with Sunak grinning back in a spirit of entente cordiale.

Sue Gray, the former civil servant who headed the inquiry into the No 10 lockdown parties
Sue Gray, the former civil servant who headed the inquiry into the No 10 lockdown parties, has been offered the job of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, leading to accusations from Boris Johnson’s allies of political bias. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

When he was presented with the deal’s details inside No 10, Eustice was more than pleasantly surprised. “I thought I was being called in to be buttered up, and presumed I would be prepared for something difficult – some compromise,” he said. “But when I saw the deal, it was far better than I thought. It was actually very good – a real achievement and a big step forward.”

Another senior Tory noted that there had been endless “pitch-rolling”, with Sunak having consulted MPs across the wide opinion span of the Tory party. In his statement to the Commons later that day the prime minister was meticulous in explaining the detail of the joint UK-EU plan, particularly its surprise rabbit-out-of-the-hat element: the proposal for a “Stormont brake” that would allow a power-sharing Northern Ireland government to veto new EU laws it did not like.

Sunak thanked those MPs who had helped deliver the deal, even singling out for praise Bill Cash, an anti-EU campaigner of more than 30 years’ standing.

MPs saw the hand of James Forsyth, the former political editor of the Spectator, who is now giving Sunak political advice in No 10, in devising the prime minister’s big-tent approach. “James has ‘route one’ relationships with MPs in all wings of the parliamentary party,” said one senior backbencher. “There has been loads of pitch-rolling. It is exactly what we have not seen for ages: competent and well-thought-through government.”

The initial Tory reaction to the deal from those who chose to comment publicly in the hours after it was announced was almost uniformly positive, while the DUP, clearly divided in its reaction but wary of jumping to conclusions, chose to bide its time before issuing a formal response.

But there were immediate and clear signs of a profound shift of mood among many Tory Brexiters. In an extraordinary interview with BBC Newsnight on Monday evening, Steve Baker, the former leader of the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group, who is now the minister for Northern Ireland, admitted that the Brexit wars in his party had driven him to a breakdown, which in turn had led him to modify some of his attitudes.

After Monday’s triumphant deal with the EU, the Tory party was hit by the leaking of WhatsApp group messages involving former health secretary Matt Hancock
Rishi Sunak did not have long to bathe in the applause for the deal with the EU before his party was hit by the leaking of WhatsApp group messages, involving former health secretary Matt Hancock, sent during the pandemic. Photograph: Pippa Fowles/10 Downing Street/dpa

“Seven years of this cost me my mental health,” he said. Baker made clear he had been converted of late to the view that the EU was best treated as a friend with which to have constructive relationships, not as the perpetual enemy. Close to tears, he said the Windsor framework showed “great statesmanship on the EU’s part as well as Rishi’s”. It was, he said, “a great triumph” and marked “a great opportunity to close one chapter of our national story and move on to the next”.

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, where, had the deal gone down badly, Sunak could have found himself at the mercy of hardline Brexit purists – as Theresa May had been before him – the protocol was hardly mentioned.

The most ardent Brexiters were either absent or chose not to speak. Johnson stayed away altogether, observing a silence that would last three days, until he issued a few disobliging remarks on Thursday, saying he did not see how he could vote for Sunak’s deal because it did not deliver real Brexit. But his words made no real waves. In a matter of a few days, the protocol issue had been talked up as a crisis that threatened Sunak’s leadership, only to suddenly subside and be welcomed very largely as a great success.

To those who have observed virulent Conservative arguments over Europe for more than three decades, it felt like a very long and troubled chapter had indeed been closed, as Baker had suggested.

One former cabinet minister said few MPs had the heart for conflict over European issues any more. “This party does not have the appetite for any more arguments about Brexit. We are exhausted. If we are to be relevant, we just have to move on.”

With evidence mounting by the day that leaving the EU has damaged the UK economy and caused more problems than it has solved, those who fought the cause of Brexit no longer seemed so sure history and the public were on their side.

When asked on Wednesday what he thought of the Sunak deal, one ardent Brexiter with long years of experience of fighting the great anti-EU fight, from Maastricht to the present, and who had warned as recently as last weekend that Sunak could be facing his high noon over the protocol, answered with a resigned smile: “Well, what I think doesn’t matter any more, does it?”

If the past week has been the best so far for Sunak’s leadership, at least in terms of his authority in his party, it is not just because his deal over the Northern Ireland protocol appears to have gone down better internally than he and Downing Street could have expected.

The other reason that things have turned in his favour is that, in the same week, the fortunes of Johnson – his greatest foe and threat to his leadership – have gone dramatically, perhaps terminally, in the other direction.

A photograph of a No 10 gathering in November 2020 was part of damning evidence released by the privileges committee
A photograph of a No 10 gathering in November 2020 was part of the evidence released by the privileges committee. Its interim report suggested Boris Johnson did mislead parliament over lockdown parties. Photograph: Cabinet Office/PA

Not only have Johnson’s hopes of rocket-boosting his own plans for a return to No 10 on the back of backbench anger about the Sunak protocol deal been left in ruins, but the former prime minister is this weekend fighting for his own political survival as an MP over the issue of Partygate, which refuses to go away.

On Friday, a cross-party committee of MPs found there was significant evidence that Johnson may have repeatedly misled parliament over lockdown parties, and that he and his aides almost certainly knew at the time they could have been breaking Covid rules just when Johnson was telling the British public daily that it was their solemn duty to observe them.

A damning interim report from the Commons privileges committee, which is investigating whether Johnson misled parliament, included evidence from one witness saying that the then prime minister had told a packed No 10 gathering in November 2020 that “this is probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”. Another message from a No 10 official in April 2021, six months before the first reports of the parties emerged, said a colleague was “worried about leaks of PM having a piss-up – and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted”.

The committee, chaired by Labour veteran Harriet Harman, concluded: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.”

The committee’s assessments were immediately dismissed by Johnson, who claimed that it had found “absolutely nothing to show that any adviser of mine or civil servant warned me in advance that events might be against the rules; nothing to say that afterwards they thought it was against the rules; nothing to show that I myself believed or was worried that something was against the rules”.

He added: “That for me is a pretty astonishing gap given the huge amount of stuff that they have.”

Instead, an orchestrated fightback was launched by Johnson’s dwindling praetorian guard of allies, including ex-cabinet minister Nadine Dorries. In a series of interviews, she tried to discredit the report into lockdown parties by the former civil servant Sue Gray, who was on Thursday controversially announced by the Labour party as the new chief of staff to leader Keir Starmer. Dorries maintained that the entire controversy of parties at No 10 was – in the light of Gray’s appointment – clearly a political plot to discredit and oust a “Brexit-backing” prime minister from Downing Street by his political opponents.

The tactics smacked of desperation. Even some of Johnson’s previous allies said he was now in trouble and that his very future as an MP, never mind his ambition to become prime minister again, was in serious doubt.

Johnson will give evidence to the privileges committee later this month, with its members – it has a Tory majority – now possessing abundant evidence that calls into question his claims of innocence. If he is found to have misled parliament, Johnson could be suspended or expelled as an MP or face a recall petition, leading to a byelection in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency that he may struggle to win. As one Sunak supporter put it: “The tide has turned in Rishi’s favour and it has gone out on Boris, who has been left with his pants down.”

For the Tories, there is still a mountain to climb, despite an upturn in their mood. The latest Opinium poll on Sunday for the Observer shows the Conservatives have yet to receive any uplift from Sunak’s success in delivering his protocol deal, though the prime minister’s personal rating has ticked upwards. Labour is still a hefty 17 percentage points ahead of the Tories.

But in Downing Street there is now at least some belief that if the economy improves, if the public sector strikes can be bought to an end, if energy prices begin to fall and if Johnson continues to implode as he has over the past week, then a reinvigorated Sunak backed by a less divided Tory party may at least be able to put up a decent fight against Starmer’s Labour when the next election is called.


Toby Helm Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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