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Rishi Sunak could learn to fear the ‘One Nation Conservative’

Here are two seemingly paradoxical pointers that are always worth bearing in mind when it comes to Rishi Sunak’s party management dilemmas: (1) the PM, an early Brexit backer, is not a one nation, moderate Conservative; and, (2), despite this, he was carried into 10 Downing Street on a wave of support from one nation, moderate Conservatives. 

The dissonance between these two points has in many ways been the underlying theme of Rishi Sunak’s party-political travails since becoming prime minister in October.

Indeed, that the PM has been endorsed repeatedly by one nation Conservatives, those supposed fifth columnists charged with leading consecutive coups last year, is a constant source of suspicion among his party right. That is despite his embrace of policy positions on migration and “culture wars”, championed by party right bastions Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch. (Of course, one reading of the PM’s approach to policy areas such as these is that Sunak is trying to convince his perennial intra-party sceptics that, after all, he truly is one of them).

What is more, over the summer Sunak began to perceive his party management and electoral incentives as aligning. And a range of factors, including a marginal pre-summer success in Uxbridge, has now triggered a full tilt against Labour on areas like migration and net zero.

The result is thus: the prime minister moves further and further away from the centre-ground of British politics, territory which his former one nation backers call home. The prime minister, who so skilfully navigated the shifting dynamics of Conservative factional politics by pivoting between ideological perspectives, no longer eyes virtue on obfuscation. He embraces his background as an uncomplicated, Brexit-backing Conservative — imploring his critics to dismiss the camera-friendly, California-dwelling, soft Cameroon outer shell.

So how should one nation MPs, in some senses Sunak’s parliamentary base, respond? Instinctively, they want to embrace the prime minister — they are never first to seize the factional pitchforks — but, equally, they fear what his rightward tilt undertaken in recent months could culminate in. Rather like the increasingly isolated “soft left” in Labour, one-nationers nominally make up a “faction”, but they take far from enthusiastically to “factionalism”. They are “wet” by name and, typically, wet by nature. 

In this way, it has arguably suited one nation Conservative MPs to sit back, assuming that the PM and Suella Braverman’s political partnership is an unwilling coalition — or that his embrace of the Rwanda project is borne of pragmatism rather than ideological intent. 

But as the prime minister’s rightward tilt continues in earnest, the assumptions of the one nation Conservative grouping are beginning to change. But more than this: they have concluded that their relative collective quiet since last October has spurred the political tides against them. Like during the Brexit years — which saw so many one nation careers ended prematurely — the group now looks set to relight their factional torches.

Of course, while one nation MPs don’t take naturally to factionalism, the same cannot be said for their de facto intra-party opponents: see the amassing alphabet of Conservative right groupings from the European Research Group (ERG), the Northern Research Group (NRG), the New Conservatives, the Common Sense Group (CSG), the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) and, less officially, the National Conservatives. They all major on similar themes of ideological maximalism: insisting Sunak hone his “vision” by agreeing with them. 

The sheer numerical weight of one nation MPs’ abbreviated antagonists would suggest Rishi Sunak’s party-management dynamic inherently levers his government in one ideological direction. But the One Nation Conservative Group of moderate Tory MPs, chaired by Damian Green, is in fact the largest backbench caucus, comprised of 80-plus MPs. 

And, over the weekend, moderate MPs flaunted their sustained status in the parliamentary party at the Tory Reform Group conference, the first gathering of the moderate organisation since 2019. The conference was comprised of keynote speeches and panel discussions, allowing one nation MPs to collect and solemnise — re-familiarising themselves with their core doctrines. Indeed, the very presence of the conference, after a five-year hiatus, is intended to demonstrate the one nation caucus’ renewed political seriousness. 

Leading up to the conference, Damian Green and Siobhan Aarons, the co-chairwoman of the Tory Reform Group, penned an article for The Times, declaring that the Tories must not become the party of “throwback nationalist populism” and urging their colleagues to reject the views espoused by “ideologues” on the right. 

It amounted to a stunning repudiation of groups like the National Conservatives. “Often the loudest voices are heard in the media”, Green and Aarons explained, in this way: “But this is a complete misreading of where the centre of gravity of the modern Conservative Party lies”.

Then the piece’s subtext then marched into the foreground: “Maybe we have been too quiet for too long.”

At other moments, the Times piece reads something like a manifesto. Green and Aarons argued that dropping 2019 manifesto commitments such as the 2050 net-zero target would “be a terrible own goal”, for example; and that leaving the European Court of Human Rights would be a “profound mistake”.

As for further evidence of a renewed energy in one nation circles, former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland urged Rishi Sunak last week to rethink his “knee-jerk” Rwanda policy, warning that Britain’s record on justice and fairness is under threat.

Then there are the coming odes to centrism flowing from the pens of former MPs David Gauke and Rory Stewart. (Of course, these one nation champions of yore still occupy relatively central places in Britain’s political landscape: Stewart as Alistair Campbell’s foil on the Rest is Politics podcast, and Gauke as a columnist at ConservativeHome and the New Statesman.)

Set for publication at the end of September, Gauke fronts an edited collection called The Case for the Centre Right featuring contributions from former moderate mainstays such as Michael Heseltine, Amber Rudd, Gavin Barwell and, yes, Rory Stewart. It is advertised thusly: “In this bold intervention, [various authors] explore how the Conservative Party morphed into a populist movement and why this approach is doomed to fail”.

Where next for one nation Conservatives?

Of course, an underlying theme of this apparent centre-right ferment is what it means for a future Conservative leadership contest. And, in this way, Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, is currently seen as the Conservative MP most likely to emerge as the one nation champion post-2024. He ran to replace Johnson last summer as many moderate MPs’ first-choice candidate (before they settled for Sunak) and appeared at the Tory Reform Conference over the weekend.

Then there’s Alex Chalk, the justice secretary who yesterday called on colleagues to be “decent and humane” in an apparent rebuke of reported plans to cap benefit rises. However, his seat of Cheltenham will likely prove far too marginal to hold in a future election.

Ultimately, it is undoubtedly true that Brexit has recast the Conservatives’ pitch, and that the moderate martyrdom of figures like Stewart and Gauke at the peak of the Brexit furore in 2019 has weakened one nation Conservatism.

But recent events point to a renewed sense of intellectual and political energy from moderate Tory MPs. It is bad news for the prime minister — who once relied on the support of such figures — if for no other reason than it indicates that pre-election positioning for a post-election leadership contest is intensifying.  

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.

Also read: How the Raac crisis could define Rishi Sunak politically

https://www.politics.co.uk/news-feature/2023/09/11/rishi-sunak-could-learn-to-fear-the-one-nation-conservative/ Rishi Sunak could learn to fear the ‘One Nation Conservative’

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