Voices: How worried should Rishi Sunak be about Boris Johnson and the Tory plotters?

Claire Perry O’Neill’s resignation from the Conservative Party matters – and is bad news for Rishi Sunak.

It’s a reminder that, while he has brought a superficial calm to the Tories after the chaos of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, huge tensions remain just below the surface of a divided party, which Perry O’Neill describes as overcome by “ideology and self-obsession”.

The centrist Sunak must look over his shoulder to the Tory MPs on his right flank, but Perry O’Neill’s parting shot shows he must also watch out for Tory moderates. Losing their support would send a bad signal to traditional Tory voters in the blue wall in the South. The competence of “reasonable Rishi” is supposed to appeal to these voters. His party has already lost sensible liberal Tories like David Gauke, Amber Rudd and Dominic Grieve after Johnson’s purge of pro-Europeans.

True, some Tories viewed the always outspoken Perry O’Neill as a volcano waiting to erupt, noting she was sacked as president of Cop26 in Glasgow. Although she is not joining Labour, her praise for Keir Starmer for offering “sober, fact-driven, competent political leadership” is wounding for Sunak, who is trying to offer just that. It’s part of a worrying trend; the former chancellor George Osborne, still a Conservative, has said a Labour government “wouldn’t be terrible” for the country.

In a vindication of Starmer’s safety-first strategy, other Tory figures will probably follow suit. Wavering voters will probably give more credence to their views than Starmer declaring a million times he is “not Corbyn” and can be trusted to run the economy. Party donors are starting to change sides, as business figures see which way the political wind is blowing.

If Sunak cannot close the 20-point gap in the opinion polls, it’s possible some red-wall Tory MPs might switch to Labour in a final throw of the dice aimed at saving their jobs. Some fear the government is not fully committed to “levelling up” and that their party will channel election resources to the more winnable blue wall. Rumours of resignations in the red wall have swirled around Westminster for months. Only one has jumped ship so far – Christian Wakeford.

Labour was hoping for three more at the time. Wakeford has been made a Labour whip to encourage other Tories to jump ship. But it’s a big thing to do: defectors are often hated by the party they leave and not fully trusted by the one they join.

Sunak, lacking a mandate from his party’s grassroots members, will view the noisy Tory right as a bigger threat than the diminished Tory left. Johnson, Truss and their supporters lurk. The new Conservative Democratic Organisation, set up by Tories angry at Johnson’s removal last year, is seen as a front group for Johnson to try to oust Sunak this year and lead the party into a 2024 election.

At Westminster, it is not difficult to find right-wing Tories who grumble that Sunak is not delivering “real Conservative policies” – meaning tax cuts and the pro-growth measures discredited by Truss’ disastrous experiment but which many Tories think were the right agenda. Johnson trumpeted both in a speech last night.

Sunak’s critics hope Jeremy Hunt will promise tax cuts in his March Budget, but are likely to be disappointed. It’s not realistic when public services are creaking, and the chancellor will likely focus on incentives to get over-50s back into work after more than half a million people left employment since the pandemic.

With friends like his internal critics, Sunak doesn’t need enemies. They will not walk out on the Tories; with many of their MPs privately resigned to election defeat, they are preparing for a battle for the soul of the party afterwards.

Even if there are no more defections, the Tory vote might be fracturing. Reform UK, the Brexit Party’s successor, is gaining ground in the opinion polls, will fight every seat in Great Britain and could deny the Tories victory in some marginal seats – especially if Nigel Farage returns to a frontline role. Ominously for Sunak, there will be no repeat of the pact under which Brexit Party candidates stood down in 317 seats and helped Johnson win his thumping 2019 victory.

These developments all point to one thing: the political tide has turned decisively against the Tories. Indeed, Perry O’Neill’s attack has uncomfortable echoes of the tectonic plates shifting during John Major’s premiership, when four of his MPs joined rival parties. Privately, some veteran Tories now view Sunak’s task as the same as Major’s: preventing a crushing defeat that leaves the party out of power for at least two terms. Major failed. We will soon know whether Sunak can do better.