Comment writer Isabel Ainsworth discusses Rishi Sunak’s ‘desperate’ attempt to fix the split among the conservatives and win voters.

Written by isabeljainsworth
Images by Nick Kane

In a recent cabinet reshuffle undertaken by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on November 13th, the internal rift within the Conservative Party once again takes centre stage, exemplifying the continual contest for the party’s ideological identity. 

The changes saw the former PM, David Cameron, assume the position of Foreign Secretary following Suella Braverman’s dismissal as Home Secretary. James Cleverley became Braverman’s successor, with Victoria Atkins replacing Steve Barclay as Health Secretary, and Barclay becoming Environment Secretary due to Thérèse Coffey’s resignation. 

I believe that Braverman’s removal and Cameron’s installation signals a stark shift away from the right-wing populist stance adopted by the Conservatives since the era of Johnson, under Truss’s tumultuous short-lived premiership and now Sunak. With a general election looming on the horizon and in the context of the cost-of-living crisis, I think Sunak is now being seen to abandon his populist rhetoric, trying to woo moderate voters. 

Looking at immigration, both Sunak and Braverman have engaged with quite abrasive populist, nationalist and racist rhetoric, fuelling paranoia and fear mongering. In her 2023 Conservative Party Conference speech, Braverman went as far to declare that there was a ‘hurricane of mass immigration’, whilst Sunak, at the same conference, referred to it as an ‘invasion’. The harsh anti-immigration stance culminated in the failed ‘Stop the Boats’ Campaign and the controversial, and illegal, Rwanda Asylum Plan, demonstrating the influence of the radical right within the party. 

I believe that before the reshuffle, the Conservatives, as demonstrated by their 2023 Party Conference, were planning to leverage the transgender debate as part of their election campaign. They believed that voters could be mobilized by depicting the transgender community, specifically transgender women, as a threat to individual security and traditional values. This then manifested itself into authoritarian legislative proposals, such as barring transgender women from women’s wards, as stated by former Health Secretary Steve Barclay. These oppressive and repressive measures and demonising rhetoric therefore outline the hold the radical right had over the party. 

Their populist rhetoric is not picking up as much traction as they would potentially like

Fundamentally, under Sunak’s leadership, I have argued that the Tory Party were still ardently maintaining the right-wing populism that had dogged the party since Brexit. However, I propose Cameron’s appointment potentially demonstrates an effort to reclaim the centre ground and galvanise disillusioned voters who have felt alienated by the party’s radical shift. 

As the polls demonstrate, the Conservative Party and their populist rhetoric is not picking up as much traction as they would potentially like. The Statista polls reveal that 45% of voters are currently leaning towards Labour, whilst only a mere 24% are backing the Conservatives. This is because the economy, the cost-of-living crisis, and inflation are becoming bigger issues, shifting them away from anti-immigration sentiments. 

Whilst the legacy of Cameron, with the failure of Brexit and the Greensill Scandal, is haunting his new appointment, it is undeniable that he represents a more moderate version of the Conservative Party. Encapsulated by his socially liberal policies such as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, in 2013. 

It raises concerns around accountability and representation.

Yet, his appointment, I believe, is throwing into question the health of our representative democracy. As he is not an elected MP, he has had to accept a peerage to serve as Foreign Secretary. It is not the first time this has happened, with 2 of Johnson’s cabinet ministers being peers as part of his 2019 administration, it raises concerns around accountability and representation. There will be a lack of direct questioning at PMQs, with junior ministers taking questions instead, and only facing direct scrutiny at select committees. 

In the foetal stages of his appointment, it has been met with a mixed reception. The party’s right-wing, of which Braverman was extremely popular, have vocalised their discontent, demonstrating the divide between the two factions. Labour has also been critical of the move. Pat McFadden, Labour’s national campaign coordinator, sums this up by stating “A few weeks ago Rishi Sunak said David Cameron was part of a failed status quo, now he’s bringing him back as his life raft…This puts to bed the prime minister’s laughable claim to offer change from 13 years of Tory failure.”.

Nevertheless, the extent to which this potentially strategic move, to bring the ex-Prime Minister back, helps to win the Tories back the centre-ground and win the election will only be seen at the voting stations. As especially in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the divide within the Labour party growing, the 2024 election remains definitively up for grabs. 

For more Comment articles on the UK government:

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Conservative Conference’s Clowns 

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