Anxious Conservative MPs have urged Rishi Sunak to deliver a vision – and avoid a catastrophe – at their party conference as they increasingly eye a narrow path to avoid electoral humiliation.
This weekend will see the starting gun fired on the race for power at next year’s general election. But Mr Sunak risks being knocked off course by what is shaping up to be an almighty battle between the right of his party and the more moderates – urging him to ignore their “populist insanity”.
Over the next two weeks, both the PM and his opponent Sir Keir Starmer will have major platforms to show voters why they should be given the keys to No 10.
Conservative MPs have been buoyed by a poll which suggested that Mr Sunak’s controversial decision last week to jettison some green targets – including when new petrol cars will be banned – has narrowed the gap with Labour.
But still many Tory MPs see the days ahead as a trial to scrape through rather than enjoy. One former minister, a Sunak supporter, said his leader’s task was to “not f*** it up”. He added: “It’s going to have to be a very good speech.”
Tory MPs admit privately that the spectrum of their electoral hopes runs, as one put it, “from ‘how do we lose as best we possibly can, to how do we scrape a victory’”.
But they have seen a possible light at the end of the tunnel in recent days. “In the last week he has managed to close the gap with Labour by showing he is in charge. If the accusation is that we are coasting, people are noticing that he wants to change things,” one MP said.
“Labour and the Lib Dems are putting forward a very negative vision. He can say, ‘yes there are problems’ but put forward that he is the person to fix him. Not Starmer.”
But he also made the perennial call of MPs from their leader, for a vision. “He’s going to have to take these things and put them in vision – and sound like he means it,” he said.
Another former cabinet minister agreed that it would be a tense week for the party and its leader. His task was to “get through without anything catastrophic happening”, he said.
That may be easier said than done, however, given he has his own party to contend with.
The New Conservatives, a group of right-wingers from the 2017 and 2019 election intakes led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, is also holding a rally to launch five “alternative” pledges. With support from the Common Sense Group – led by close Suella Braverman ally John Hayes – they will call for withdrawal of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), tax cuts, and action to protect female-only safe spaces.
The Tory right has been buoyed after Ms Braverman was said to have been authorised by No 10 to float the prospect of leaving the ECHR as a “warning shot” to the Strasbourg court which has helped thwart the government’s Rwanda policy.
Mr Kruger said the government was “getting into the right place” on the issue – which sparked a warning by Damian Green, chair of the One Nation moderates, that it would be “very damaging for Britain’s reputation around the world”.
Tory grandee Dominic Grieve urged Mr Sunak to ignore Ms Braverman and those on the right who are “playing to the populist gallery” on immigration. “It’s up to him whether he’s got the courage to face down a really dangerous fringe of the party.”
The ex-attorney general told The Independent that right-wing Tory calls to pull out of the ECHR are “so reckless as to have an element of insanity” and a “seriously damaging fantasy”.
Mr Grieve added: “Having allowed the threat to be uttered, then if the Rwanda policy fails, [Mr Sunak] will be asked seriously if will go through with this. I’m not sure it’s good politics, aside from anything else.
Tory peer Lord Hayward said going into this conference: “The mood is slightly better than for months. There is hope again. The net zero move appears to have made a difference, with three recent polls showing an uplift. Tory MPs have told me it has struck a chord on the doorstep.”
He added: “The pressure comes from the right on various things. But Rishi’s job is to appeal over the heads of the party to the public at large. Inheritance tax is not the main issue for people – it’s inflation. So he has to carry on with the mission. The economy is the thing that matters most.”
Tom Lubbock, director at JL Partners polling firm, told The Independent: “There is that risk that those on the right say things which are unhelpful – and someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg criticises Sunak directly. But people know what the Tories are like [on infighting].”
He urged the prime minister to concentrate on “brand Rishi”.
The pollster added: “He has to concentrate on building Brand Rishi as someone who takes big, long-term decisions for the good of the economy. There is a case for some optimism for the Tories, if inflation comes down. But they will have to rely on the Keir Starmer brand remaining wobbly.”