Rishi Sunak is already battling his party on five fronts

Rishi Sunak is fighting his own rebellious MPs on no fewer than five fronts - Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Rishi Sunak is fighting his own rebellious MPs on no fewer than five fronts - Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On the day he became Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak warned the Conservative Party it was time to “unite or die”.

Four weeks on, his plea appears to have fallen on deaf ears as he fights his own rebellious MPs on no fewer than five fronts now that the serious business of passing legislation has begun.

Pitch battles over energy, housing, migration, online harms and foreign policy are an unwelcome distraction for a Prime Minister whose most pressing priority is the cost of living crisis, and the strikes by rail, NHS and other workers that it has prompted.

The risk for Mr Sunak is that he finds his authority seriously undermined just a month into the job. Rather than having a firm hand on the tiller, he could quickly look like a captain trying desperately to keep his ship afloat as it is battered by storms from every direction.

Like Boris Johnson before him, he is quickly finding that even a working majority of 69 is not enough to govern if backbenchers are in a belligerent mood.

George Osborne, the former chancellor who has advised Mr Sunak on economic policy, suggested that the Government was “not in control of events”, which was a “dangerous” position to be in.

He told Channel 4: “Since Rishi Sunak’s claim to government is competence, he and his ministers need to diffuse all these different issues.”

Mr Sunak already knew that he had inherited the most difficult inbox of any premier in living memory, and the coming weeks will reveal just how capable a leader the Tories have chosen.


The progress of the Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill has been delayed by a major mutiny over housebuilding targets.

The Bill was due to go through its second report stage on Monday, but that plan had to be abandoned after 50 Tory MPs backed an amendment to scrap housebuilding targets - more than enough to wipe out the Government’s majority.

Tabled by Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, the amendment proposed making targets advisory instead of mandatory. It was backed by big names including Priti Patel, Iain Duncan Smith, Esther McVey, John Redwood and Damian Green.

They argue that planning decisions should be taken at local level, because top-down targets can lead to pressure for development in areas where it is not appropriate.

Rishi Sunak has deployed Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, to discuss a compromise with rebels over housing - Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Rishi Sunak has deployed Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, to discuss a compromise with rebels over housing - Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Labour said it would not back the amendment - meaning the Government was not in danger of being defeated.

Mr Sunak could, then, have decided to tough it out by ignoring the rebels and pressing ahead with a vote. But he would have risked alienating some of the party’s most influential backbenchers at a time when he is desperately trying to build bridges not widen the cracks in an already fragmented party.

Mr Sunak has deployed Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, to discuss a compromise with the rebels, such as legally prioritising brownfield sites for new housing and allowing greater flexibility on targets.

Failing to meet the Government’s current target of 300,000 new homes per year would be disastrous going into the next general election in 2024.


The Levelling Up Bill also contains proposals for a ban on new onshore wind farms, which Mr Sunak’s two immediate predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, are determined to overturn.

They are leading a powerful coalition of more than 30 Conservative MPs backing an amendment to the Bill tabled by Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary, who believes more onshore wind farms are needed to increase the UK’s energy security and bring down energy bills in the long term.

Mr Johnson, who once claimed that wind farms “wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding”, has become a convert to the idea of onshore wind, even though he notably failed to lift the moratorium on new turbines while he was in Number 10.

Sir Jake Berry, the former Conservative Party chairman, has joined the rebellion, which he has described as “the first crack in the wall” of party discipline under Mr Sunak.

Liz Truss and Boris Johnson are determined to overturn proposals for a ban on new onshore wind farms - Toby Melville/AP
Liz Truss and Boris Johnson are determined to overturn proposals for a ban on new onshore wind farms - Toby Melville/AP

Mr Gove is said to be sympathetic to the rebels, leading to suggestions that he might be secretly backing their plot - something allies of Mr Gove have denied.

Unlike the revolt over housing targets, Labour has said it is in favour of lifting the onshore wind ban, meaning the Government faces the very real prospect of defeat if it tries to push ahead with its plans.

The problem for Mr Sunak is that he pledged during the summer leadership campaign that he would “scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England”, and would instead invest in offshore wind. His team said he believed onshore wind farms caused “distress and disruption” to communities.

If Mr Sunak caves in to the rebels, he will be portrayed as a weak Prime Minister beholden to the whim of a minority of his backbenchers. If he presses ahead with a vote, he risks losing, which would also erode his authority.


Mr Sunak was a staunch supporter of Brexit, which was billed as a means for Britain to take back control of its borders. Six years on from the referendum vote, net migration is at a record high of 504,000 and ever-increasing numbers of cross-Channel migrants are making it to the UK in small boats.

Rather than coming up with solutions to the migration crisis, Mr Sunak has allowed another group of rebel backbenchers to seize the narrative by coming up with their own ideas.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, is one of 50 MPs who have written to the Prime Minister urging him to adopt a new policy of repatriating people from so-called safe countries if they claim to be victims of people trafficking.

Mr Davis has pointed out that countries with a reputation for being more liberal than Britain, such as Sweden, have similar policies in place, and he argues that almost all illegal arrivals from Albania, who now account for around a quarter of all cross-Channel migrants, could be sent straight home.

Tory MPs in former Red Wall seats traditionally held by Labour fear that unless Mr Sunak gets on top of the migrant crisis they will be obliterated by Sir Keir Starmer’s party at the next election, as immigration is one of the top priorities for voters in those regions.

There are also dark rumblings about Tory MPs defecting to the Reform Party, especially if Nigel Farage decides to return to front-line politics as its leader. Nine Tory MPs, including Dehenna Davison, the first ever Conservative to gain the seat of Bishop Auckland, have already announced their plans to throw in the towel by standing down in 2024.

Foreign policy

Mr Sunak will deliver his first major foreign policy speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on Monday night, which will be watched keenly by all Tory MPs, especially the so-called “hawks” on relations with China and Russia.

He will talk about the need for “robust pragmatism”, which has already set alarm bells ringing for some in his party who fear he will be too soft on China in order to protect trade interests.

Members of his own Cabinet, among them Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, will be looking out for clues about the direction of defence spending, including the level of aid Britain is prepared to give Ukraine in the form of munitions - while Andrew Mitchell, the development minister, wants to see an increase in foreign aid spending.

At a time when China is cracking down on protests over its zero Covid policy and talking tough on annexing Taiwan, many Tory MPs want to see Mr Sunak taking a stand against Beijing and putting Britain’s long-term interests ahead of short-term trading profits.

Mr Sunak will use his speech to insist that he will be “stronger in defending our values and openness on which our prosperity depends”, which means “delivering a stronger economy at home, because it is the foundation of our strength abroad, and it means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism”.

Critics have already argued that there should be little to no room for pragmatism when dealing with China and Russia, and Mr Sunak’s foreign policy could turn out to be a long-running sore when it comes to relations with his back benches.

Online harms

The Government’s Online Safety Bill has been a constant source of argument between ministers and backbenchers during its lengthy and painful gestation period.

Due to be introduced back into the Commons on Dec 5, the Bill had to be paused after a back-bench rebellion by MPs who argued that it would unacceptably stifle free speech.

In its original incarnation, the Bill would have required online platforms including Facebook, Google, TikTok and Instagram to remove content that was deemed to be legal but harmful to adults. A list of the potential harms was to be included in the Bill.

Free speech campaigners, including a number of MPs, were concerned that the Bill would effectively outlaw controversial opinions and stifle debate of sensitive topics.

Mr Sunak is now expected to introduce a compromise in the Bill that would enable users to choose whether to filter out “legal but harmful” material. Sections of the Bill that deal with the safety of children are expected to remain as tough as possible.

Whether or not the compromise is acceptable to the rebels will only be clear once the Bill is reintroduced.