Tuesday, 21 Mar 2023

Sunak has seven days to see off Tory revolt and end his Boris problem

Boris ‘will be convinced’ to back Ireland deal says Heaton-Harris

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Tomorrow’s Budget, the European Research Group (ERG) report on his Brexit deal, and then the start of the Privileges Committee hearings into Mr Johnson could put an end to the threat posed by the “blonde bombshell.” If these three issues land properly, Mr Sunak will end talk of a potential coup and be able to focus his guns on Labour.

A month ago, with the Boris Johnson comeback in full swing with portrait unveilings and trips to Ukraine and America; there was clear panic over the EU Brexit deal; fury at the non-appearance of the small boats Bill; and continued abysmal polling.

It all looked grim for Sunak.

A number of Conservative backbenchers saw the chances of a coup as greater than 50/50 and there seemed to be a real belief from the “Bring Back Boris” brigade that the former Prime Minister could be installed as the only man who can save the Tories.

But after a Brexit deal on Northern Ireland where even Sunak’s harshest critics said he had got more out of the EU than expected and (finally!) the Illegal Migration Bill was tabled, the mood has changed.

So much so that at a dinner last week attended by Express.co.uk with MPs from the Common Sense Group, who had been Boris loyalists, Mr Sunak was being spoken of with cautious approval.

At another event, one former minister posed a question: “Is the truth that Sunak has not been able to make in-roads into the Labour lead because he has spent too much time looking over his shoulder [at Boris]?”

The question then is after the next seven days whether Sunak can start looking forwards and training his fire on Labour instead.

His handling of the three Bs – Budget, Brexit and Boris – will decide that.

The Budget

In some ways, there has not been such a boring run-up to a Budget in many a long year but at the same time what is announced (and what is not announced tomorrow) will be crucial for the Prime Minister.

Tory MPs ranged between underwhelmed and disappointed on the £5billion rise in defence spending but it was enough to keep the wolves from from the door.

However, with expectations low among Conservative MPs it may well boil down to four words or rather two sets of two words – “Corporation Tax” and “Fuel Duty.”

And tackling these issues would not even require tax cuts, just the cancellation of planned tax rises.

The Corporation Tax issue – with a planned rise from 19p to 25p in the pound – is totemic for Conservative MPs.

In many ways goes back to why Tory members backed Liz Truss because Mr Sunak, as Chancellor, had first proposed the increase.

Today, Priti Patel, still an ally of Mr Johnson who is behind the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) rebellion against the Sunak leadership, has underlined in Express.co.uk why Corporation Tax is so important for Tory MPs.

A senior ERG member also said: “If the Corporation Tax rise is cancelled I will be the first to sing Rishi Sunak’s name from the heights. It will be huge.”

A 2019 MP: “If he presses ahead with it, he and [Chancellor Jeremy] Hunt will kill off any chance of economic recovery and growth and cause a recession.”

Yet another MP: “This is a must for colleagues. He has to cancel the Corporation Tax increase.”

They all see it as a bar to investment and economic growth.

Interestingly, Simon Clarke, an ally of Liz Truss was pushing the case for the cancellation over the weekend.

The feeling is that Hunt will compromise and just do part of the increase or postpone it.

But he has, according to one think tank, £97billion of headroom so he could cancel it altogether.

Almost equally totemic is the planned 12p increase in fuel duty (14p when you count inflation).

The attraction of doing this for the first time since 2011 can be seen given the government’s Net Zero climate change policies.

But again, Ms Patel was at the forefront of a host of Conservative MPs warning about the impact on the cost of living, inflation and opinion polls.

Fair Fuel UK had 45 MPs at a meeting on the issue last week and the feeling is that the Chancellor will listen.

One Tory MP put it bluntly: “There are no grey areas here. It would be suicidal to increase fuel duty.”

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In some ways this is the simplest issue.

The ERG of Tory Brexiteers has its star chamber of constitutional lawyers chaired by veteran Sir William Cash reporting back on the Northern Ireland deal.

If, as expected, they come out against it the issue will be: How big will the rebellion be?

Mr Johnson’s speech saying he would vote against and 50 concerned MPs attending the last ERG meeting suggests that the Prime Minister is not out of the woods yet.

But a lot of MPs on the fringes of the argument seem to be willing to support it.

One MP said: “It’s Northern Ireland…it doesn’t really work up my constituents like small boats.”

But another noted: “If Sunak needs Labour votes to get this over the line it will poison the mood in the party for good.”

Sir Bill’s European Scrutiny Committee has already been uncomplimentary about the deal, so his ERG one is likely to be even less so.

However, it could all depend on the DUP. If Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party backs it then the PM is home and dry.

As one senior ERGer put it: “You can’t out unionist the Unionists.”

The trial of Boris

The trickiest issue of them all.

The Privileges Committee starts its enquiry into whether Mr Johnson misled Parliament over Partygate.

Already, with the Partygate report author Sue Gray leaving the civil service to join Labour and other issues around it, there are claims of a stitch-up.

Last week Express.co.uk revealed that Tory MPs had been threatened by the whips that they would be kicked out if they challenged the committee’s process.

But with a Tory membership grassroots rebellion in full swing, a number of Tory MPs believe Sunak should intervene.

One Red Wall MP said: “It’s hard to get members to help or motivated. They are still p***ed off about what happened to Boris. They are very unhappy he was removed.”

Another Red Wall MP added threateningly: “Sunak can stop this and if he doesn’t colleagues will take note.”

A former minister said: “This is a stitch-up to get Boris pure and simple. Downing Street is part of it.”

On the other hand, Sunak does not necessarily want his would-be nemesis off the hook and many of the MPs who got him there want the former Prime Minister to go down.

Nor does he want to make the Owen Paterson mistake where the government intervened to get an MP off the hook only to see the start of a collapse in support in the polls.

So far so good…

The dinner with former Boris loyalists last week showed that the Prime Minister has bought himself time.

Not least because the right of the party is very happy about the tough Bill on stopping the small boats and illegal migration.

One MP who had been actively telephoning colleagues for Boris Johnson, the moment the former PM pulled out of the race to replace Liz Truss, said: “Obviously I wanted Boris and I was part of his campaign team but to be honest I have been pleasantly surprised.

“I think he is doing what needs to be done. Very pleased with the [small boats] Bill.”

The deadline set for a coup is the May local elections.

But if the next seven days go well then Mr Sunak could finally start to focus on Sir Keir Starmer.

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