STEPHEN GLOVER: Tories are like a dysfunctional family at Christmas

STEPHEN GLOVER: The Tories are like a dysfunctional family at Christmas lunch after too much wine – but their deep differences go far beyond Rwanda

How fitting that some of those plotting to get rid of Rishi Sunak should have conspired over dinner at a Sicilian restaurant in London’s Covent Garden.

For the Tories – by far the most successful political party in British history – increasingly resemble feuding Sicilian clans, though admittedly they haven’t yet resorted to taking out one another with machine guns. Perhaps that time will come.

Tomorrow, there’s a crucial vote on the Government’s latest plans to pack off illegal migrants to Rwanda. But whether it wins or loses – the money is on a victory – is largely immaterial. The Tories’ mental breakdown is not really about Rwanda.

In their present fractious mood, they are like a dysfunctional family at Christmas lunch. After too much wine has been drunk, they start arguing about who got the big end of the Christmas cracker. Their real differences are deep and historic, and have little or nothing to do with crackers.

If Tory MPs were acting rationally, they wouldn’t be tearing their party apart over Rwanda. They would accept that the Government’s new Bill, though it may well still provide enough loopholes for migrants to raise legal challenges, is at least a step in the right direction.

Rational Tory MPs would reflect that the number of migrants crossing the English Channel has fallen by around a third this year, which surely amounts to some sort of achievement by ministers.

How fitting that some of those plotting to get rid of Rishi Sunak should have conspired over dinner at a Sicilian restaurant in London ‘s Covent Garden, writes Stephen Glover 

Rational MPs would also recollect that the number of illegal migrants last year was about one-sixteenth the number of legal migrants. Of course illegal immigration is an important issue, but it is hardly to be compared with Brexit, and it certainly isn’t worth destroying a political party over it.

The row over Rwanda is therefore more a symptom of a collective nervous breakdown than the cause. The true reasons behind what is going on can be distilled into one word. Panic.

Many Tory MPs foresee losing their jobs and livelihoods. Their fears are not misguided. According to polling guru Sir John Curtice yesterday, there might be as few as 130 Conservative MPs after the next election. At the moment there are 350 Tory seats.

In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that an increasing number of Tories should be heaping blame on Rishi Sunak. After the turbulence of Boris Johnson’s final months, Rishi promised calm and competence. In the event, he has succeeded in delivering even more turbulence.

It appears he’s not as calm as he makes out. He seemed unusually agitated during a No 10 Press conference last Thursday, called after the Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick had resigned.

Nor is Mr Sunak obviously as competent as many thought. Two recent examples: his petulant cancellation two weeks ago of a meeting with the Greek prime minister after a silly spat about the Elgin Marbles; and whipping Conservative MPs last week to vote against compensation for victims in the contaminated blood scandal.

I’m not surprised that Mr Sunak should have proved a disappointment to some of his cheerleaders. He became Prime Minister at a young age, having been an MP for only seven years. Before that, he had worked in the out-of-touch hothouse of high finance.

What evidence was there that he was a natural leader? Or that he had the necessary political gifts for keeping a party together? Or even that voters would be drawn to him at a general election? Very little.

Of course he is nice and clever and decent, and I personally rejoiced to see someone of colour becoming Prime Minister of our country. It seemed to offer irrefutable proof that Britain isn’t racist.

The idea that Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch might turn around Tory fortunes this side of an election is fanciful, writes Stephen Glover 

Rishi’s main problem, though, isn’t that he is inexperienced or lacking in political guile. It is that, to put it bluntly, he is guilty of regicide. He seized the crown from the man who had achieved by far the largest Tory majority in over three decades.

I realise that ours is a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister is the person who enjoys the confidence of his or her party, and is not directly elected by the people. Winston Churchill became the country’s leader in 1940 because Tory MPs so willed it.

Nonetheless, our system has changed somewhat, inasmuch as voters tend increasingly to be swayed by the character and attributes of party leaders. Love him or loathe him, who can doubt it was Boris Johnson who won the Tories such a huge majority in 2019?

Set aside his mistakes and shortcomings. To have removed him in such a fashion – and Mr Sunak was the chief usurper – was a momentous thing to have done. We may have a parliamentary system, but Rishi doesn’t have the legitimacy that Boris did.

READ MORE: The cost of the Rwanda scheme has doubled to £300 million despite never having been used, the Home Office reveals

Let’s assume the Government wins its second reading tomorrow. Even so, Tory MPs will continue to harry the Prime Minister, and doubtless insert amendments when the Bill comes back for its third reading in the new year.

More to the point, they will undermine Rishi on a host of other issues. Rwanda is only the battleground on which critics of the Prime Minister have chosen to engage. They believe he is leading them to electoral disaster, and so must be jettisoned.

The idea that Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch might turn around Tory fortunes this side of an election is fanciful. Why would they? They are as inexperienced as Rishi, and have no more legitimacy. Ms Braverman is a divisive and abrasive figure. Ms Badenoch might lead her party in the future.

No, the choice is between Rishi and Boris. On the whole, I expect Tory MPs will decide that it is too late to throw Mr Sunak overboard, and so will stick with him in the hope that things will improve.

But another upheaval isn’t inconceivable. Some Tories point out, rightly, that even in Boris Johnson’s stormy final months Labour’s opinion poll lead was in single figures, whereas it is now consistently over 20 per cent.

There are probably a few dozen Conservative MPs who long for Boris’s return, and an unknowable number with assassins’ regret who wish they hadn’t got rid of him. He could attract enough support, though he would have to be found a seat.

Boris is despised by many in the country, and widely seen as flawed. I don’t say, after all that has happened, that he would win an election against Sir Keir Starmer. But Tory MPs might reasonably conclude that he could lessen the magnitude of Labour’s victory.

I hope the Government wins its Commons vote tomorrow, not least because the Bill offers some prospect (though in my view not very great) of getting some illegal migrants on aeroplanes to Rwanda, and thereby deterring others from crossing the Channel.

But there’s really no point in exhorting Tory MPs to start behaving sensibly. They didn’t behave sensibly when they sacked their leader, and all that has happened has flowed from that reckless act.

Believe me, I’m not Boris’s greatest fan. That’s beside the point. What matters now is whether he or Rishi offers the better chance of avoiding electoral Armageddon. That’s a decision Tory MPs will have to make. Let’s hope they can do so without wiping one another out.

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