Rishi Sunak's authority over his party has been affirmed

·4 min read
Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

It was always going to be a dramatic day in Westminster. The stakes could hardly have been higher for Boris Johnson, appearing at the privileges committee for a remarkable televised grilling over whether he deliberately misled MPs on partygate. Few can doubt that the former prime minister retains ambitions for high office. If the committee finds against him, however, he potentially faces suspension from Parliament, a recall petition, and a by-election that he would be widely predicted to lose.

But the stakes were high for Rishi Sunak, too. Perhaps it was surprising that the Prime Minister chose the same day as Mr Johnson’s hearing to hold a Commons vote on the Windsor Framework. His revised deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol was revealed weeks ago, and the initial reaction from Brexiteers had been subdued. But in recent days, speculation had begun to grow that Mr Sunak would have a major rebellion on his hands.

Earlier this week, the DUP came out against the Framework. Then, yesterday morning, Mr Johnson broke cover as well. In an implicit challenge to the Prime Minister’s authority, he said that he would vote against the deal, joined a few hours later by the leadership of the European Research Group, Liz Truss, Priti Patel, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Momentum appeared to be building. In a major blow to his premiership, would Mr Sunak have to rely on Labour votes to get his deal through?

In the event, even the support of the hero of the referendum himself was not enough to embarrass the Prime Minister. The lion might have roared, but few wanted to listen.

It is hardly as if the objections to the Framework are trivial. The Stormont Brake does not restore sovereignty to Northern Ireland, which languishes under EU law over which it has no direct control. The reduction in customs checks for certain forms of trade across the Irish Sea is welcome, but the threat remains that new barriers could emerge if Britain diverges from EU rules. Many Brexiteers worry that the Framework will come to be seen as the end of the matter, embedding the undemocratic and divisive Protocol as a permanent fixture of British politics.

But the relatively high number of Conservative MPs who abstained on the vote suggests that Mr Johnson’s intervention may have been counterproductive. If they had formally rejected the Framework, it was bound to have been seen in some quarters as implicit support for Mr Johnson over Mr Sunak. Evidently, they did not want that.

Even after yesterday, and even if the privileges committee rules against him, it would be wrong to write off Mr Johnson as a spent force. As his performance at the hearing attested, he has lost none of his fighting spirit, nor his capacity to weave arguments that infuriate and confound his political opponents. It is not difficult to imagine, if he is indeed removed from Parliament, him returning in another guise – maybe even as the leader of a new party dedicated to channelling the fury and disappointment that many millions feel towards a failed establishment.

But it is also clear that Tory Brexiteers require a new champion. Rejoiners scent blood. They are anticipating that a Labour government under Sir Keir Starmer – who did so much to try to block the UK’s exit in the last Parliament – will seek much closer ties with the EU. They believe that Brexit is losing the argument and point to polling showing a rising proportion of the public wanting to rejoin.

There has been very little sign of a fightback from the Government. Instead of clearly elucidating the differences between his party and Labour, or propounding the benefits of leaving the EU, the Prime Minister has a dispiriting habit of defining himself against his predecessors – as a fiscally conservative tonic to Ms Truss’s supposed recklessness, as the pragmatic problem-fixer who can clear up Mr Johnson’s messes. One consequence is that voters may be left none the wiser as to what he actually stands for.

It was always perverse, in last summer’s Tory leadership election, that Mr Sunak allowed himself to be painted as a Remainer given that he backed Brexit in the referendum at some political risk to himself. He now has an opportunity to show that he is much more than a technocrat. With his authority over his party seemingly affirmed, surely he can afford to take a few risks.