After being handed the keys to Number 10 unopposed just two weeks ago, Rishi Sunak has made it his priority to reassure the public that the Tory psychodrama is over.
The plan was to inspire a different kind of Conservative politics – one characterized more by Tory cohesion and far less by blue-on-blue bickering. “Unity, experience and continuity” were openly flaunted as the new government’s guiding principles, and Sunak’s cabinet was built in that vein.
Reversing the failed Truss formula, a balance was struck between the distribution of office among loyalists and the appointment of “unity” electors. Extending their party’s olive branch to the right, prominent stragglers such as James Cleverley, Therese Coffey and Kemi Budenock have all retained ministerial posts.
Eventually, all factions were appeased. Even like-minded people like Andrew Mitchell and Johnny Mercer were also rewarded with fancy government jobs.
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But behind the scenes, there was evidence of a different strategy.
The outward emphasis on “unity, experience and continuity” was undercut by an agenda of strict party discipline behind closed doors. “Unite or die,” Sunak told MPs privately just hours after becoming party leader.
The appointment of five former cabinet chiefs, with the exception of Simon Hart as the new head of party discipline, was in itself a major statement of intent.
And first among Sunak’s parliamentary muscles was, of course, Sir Gavin Williamson.
Williamson was perhaps the most curious of Sunak’s cabinet members. As a minister without portfolio, he was promoted without special guidance – and his reputation was particularly tarnished by a government focused on “integrity, professionalism and accountability”.
Of course, Sunak is not naive enough not to know about Williamson’s past in Parliament. But he could expect his subordinates to bow down and accept Williamson’s promotion out of respect for the new ruling regime. Indeed, after yielding on many levels to the rabbits and party rebels, Williamson wanted to establish his personal power.
In this sense, the circumstances of Williamson’s downfall are incredibly instructive.
The simple explanation for Williamson’s resignation is that he had too many enemies.
Most of these were accumulated during his long tenure as an official and unofficial parliamentary debater. Williamson’s unique take on political relationships was put on public display when his scathing WhatsApp exchange with Truss chief whip Wendy Morton made headlines Sunday Times.
The Sunday Times The scoop was backed up by accounts from Ann Milton, Williamson’s former deputy, and an anonymous civil servant who was allegedly ordered to “cut your throat” by the mastermind manipulator. Williamson denies the claims. All of this together was enough to force Williamson to leave the government on Wednesday.
But another man with too many enemies appears to have been Williamson’s former boss, Rishi Sunak.
Williamson’s resignation is naturally a huge embarrassment to the government, but Sunak is likely to be more concerned about the non-stop briefings and maneuvering that has surrounded the whole affair.
In fact, after Sunak’s emphasis on party unity, a new “awkward squad” of disgruntled former ministers appears to be emerging. The main one is former party chairman and sunak saki Sir Jake Berry.
Berry, like Williamson, is a shrewd political operator.
The ink has not yet dried on the discoveries in Sunday TimesBerry issued a statement saying he told the Prime Minister about the allegations against Williamson the day before he entered No.10.
Thus, new questions were raised about what Sunak knew and when; hence Gowgate became the kind of scandal to which a minister cannot say “shut up and go away” (to use one of Williamson’s more infamous phrases).
But the problems run deeper than Williamson.
Berry has already identified himself as the party’s main cause of discontent over the controversy surrounding the re-appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.
Indeed, it didn’t take 24 hours with Sunak in Number 10 before the former party chairman began briefing his own government. Jagad told TalkTV that Braverman had committed “several breaches of the ministerial code” as Trus Home Secretary.
The move was a clear attempt to undermine the new leader.
Berry’s intervention should dispel the notion that peace has broken out between Tory MPs – in fact, with the much-anticipated Autumn Statement due next week, the Prime Minister has every reason to be worried.
With immediate tax hikes and spending cuts set to be announced, Sunak’s problems running the party may just be beginning.
There are warning signs.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who helped lead Liz Truss’ campaign against Sunak over the summer, pointedly said Sky News this week that if the government “tries to hit us too hard with tax hikes, they will actually drive us into a recession”.
He added: “There will be deep concern [in the party] when to go over it.”
Nadine Dorries, also concerned about the possibility of an excessive budget adjustment, took to Twitter on Thursday about reports that Sunak intends to delay a plan to cap spending on social services. “Given everything Hunt said when he was chair of the Department of Health and Social Care Select Committee, I am very surprised,” she wrote.
Add to this the growing anxiety about the future of the pension triple lock and the potential attack on people’s inheritance, and it is clear that the battle for control of the Conservative Party is still on the back burner.
Many are not yet ready to bury the hatchet in Torah’s psychodrama.
So November 17th and the new fall announcement could still get more awkward for Rishi Sunak.