Tory anarchy breaks out as revolt looms on Brexit laws

Ex-ministers attack Rishi Sunak’s leadership as pro-Johnson wing calls for lower taxes

Rishi Sunak was losing control of an increasingly anarchic Tory party on Saturday as former cabinet ministers openly criticised the direction of policy under his leadership and dozens of backbench MPs plotted a new rebellion over Brexit.

Amid recriminations over the heavy Conservative losses in recent council elections, and with pro-Brexit MPs incensed that Sunak’s government is dropping plans to shred more than 4,000 EU laws within months, discipline was at risk of completely disintegrating on the right of the party.

Speaking at the inaugural conference of the pro-Boris Johnson Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) in Bournemouth on Saturday, former home secretary Priti Patel suggested the party’s high command under Sunak was responsible for the losses.

In a clear swipe at those now in charge, she said some senior figures at Westminster had “done a better job at damaging our party” over the past year than Labour. She also criticised MPs for removing Johnson, saying they had overseen the “ousting of our most electorally successful prime minister since Margaret Thatcher”.

In comments reminiscent of the disastrous Liz Truss leadership, she also backed a tax-cutting agenda, despite the perilous state of public finances and stubbornly high inflation. “The public will not vote Conservative because they want high taxes, high spending and high borrowing,” she said. “They vote Conservative because they expect us to keep taxes down.”

Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary and one of Johnson’s biggest backers, told the conference that the party had undergone an “astonishing political tumble” since Johnson secured an 80-strong majority in 2019 and was “going backwards”.

“We are drifting and people know that,” she said. “They can sense it and they can smell it. We no longer have that inspirational leader and those visionary policies. What happened to levelling up? It’s been all but dumped … a U-turn on the promised bonfire of EU regulation, which in itself demonstrates a paucity of ambition.”

While she did not call for Johnson to replace Sunak, Dorries said: “The solution to most problems in politics are usually quite simple – you need the right leader, you need the right vision and you need to make people feel inspired … I don’t think we’re there at the moment.”

Criticism of Sunak is increasingly focusing on last week’s widely predicted reverse over the retained EU law bill, a much vaunted initiative that formed a centrepiece of the Sunak campaign for the Tory leadership last year. It was also subject of a special video from his campaign team, featuring shots of him shredding laws himself.

On Monday the bill will be the subject of further argument and controversy during its report stage in the Lords, with pro-EU Tory peers among those backing a series of amendments to limit the power of ministers to unilaterally scrap any laws.

But with the party increasingly dividing into rival camps over Brexit and EU issues, the Observer has been told that large numbers of Eurosceptic Tory MPs will be ready to rebel when the bill comes back to the Commons, unless ministers reverse their U-turn and in effect reinsert a firm date by which most EU law will be scrapped.

Former minister David Jones, now deputy chair of the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptics, said: “This is a very important issue to a lot of Conservative backbenchers. A promise was made at the time of the last general election that we would deliver the benefits of Brexit, which included getting rid of a whole tranche of EU laws. Now a lot of those same members are extremely concerned that this promise seems to have been abandoned.”

Meetings between whips and backbench Tory MPs are continuing to try to avert a Commons showdown, which some fear could be reminiscent of rows that tore the party apart in the early 1990s over the Maastricht treaty. “If we don’t see progress we will see the spectacle return to the Commons of Tory MPs at war with their own government,” said one senior MP.

Another senior ERG figure said the rebellion would be far bigger than that over Sunak’s deal on post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade, the Windsor framework – which saw 22 of his own MPs vote against him – because scrapping EU laws made sense to millions of voters as a demonstration of Brexit in action.

Rishi Sunak (L) and Suella Braverman
Suella Braverman is one of those at the top of the party jockeying for position ahead of an expected election defeat. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, as signs grow that some at the top of the party are jockeying for position before what they believe will be a general election defeat next year, Suella Braverman, the home secretary, will take centre stage at another gathering of the right, the “national conservatism” conference in London, where speakers will also include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and firebrand former miner and prominent backbencher Lee Anderson.

Leaving his increasingly mutinous party behind him, Sunak – who on Saturday went to watch his favourite football team, Southampton, lose to Fulham and get relegated from the Premier League – will begin a week of international engagements. On Tuesday he will attend a meeting of the Council of Europe in Iceland and then travel to Tokyo, before the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

Charles Walker, the Tory MP for Broxbourne, and former vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, said the party in its current state did not deserve a leader as capable as Sunak, and should get behind him. “After the conduct of the Conservative party last year, Rishi Sunak is a far better leader than it deserves,” he said. Deriding critics on the right who preferred Johnson or Truss, he added: “The last thing the Conservative party wants is a tribute act to chaos.”

Tory MP and defence select committee chair Tobias Ellwood said the new burst of activity on the right looked like a deliberate attempt to skewer Sunak. “After finally seeing our government enter a welcome period of stability, reflected in the national polling, it is difficult to interpret this sudden surge in rightwing activism as other than a deliberate attempt to knock the prime minister off course,” he said.

“Many colleagues from all wings of the party are deeply baffled by not just one, but two splinter groups engaging in this act of self-harm.”

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer offers limited comfort to Sunak, showing Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is down from 18 points two weeks ago to 14 points. Labour is down one on 43%, the Conservatives up 3 on 29%, the Liberal Democrats up 1 on 11% and the Greens down 2 on 5%. Starmer is still preferred as PM, on 29% against 26% for Sunak.


Toby Helm and Michael Savage

The GuardianTramp

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