Rishi Sunak warned of 'brutal' backbench clashes ahead as he approaches 100 days in office
When asked how Rishi Sunak has performed in his first 100 days as Prime Minister, some of his MPs adopt a "more in sorrow than in anger" tone.
“We need a complete change of pace. I’m tempted to say direction, but I don’t know which direction we’re going in,” grumbles one veteran Tory backbencher.
Another simply offers the mantra they learned from their mother: “If you’ve got very little good to say, best to say nothing.”
The mood of gloomy resignation is unsurprising. As Mr Sunak completes his first 100 days this week, Tory MPs are still contemplating a polling deficit of about 20 points compared with Labour.
With the party fatigued by the two acts of political regicide carried out in the last year, there is no great appetite to burn through yet another leader.
Yet Mr Sunak’s position remains vulnerable in this most ruthless of parties - particularly as he approaches a set of crunch local elections in May. “The Conservative Party is tough and brutal,” warns one Tory MP. “We want to win.”
They darkly add: “If this one isn’t working… well we’ve done it before haven’t we?”
While Tory MPs are always a difficult bunch to please, there is a statistical basis for the sense of malaise.
Polling commissioned by The Telegraph shows that the general public do not think that Mr Sunak has achieved much in his first 100 days.
A survey carried out by Savanta of 2,142 UK adults found that 53 per cent believe the period has been unsuccessful, compared with 39 per cent who rate it a success.
High inflation, rolling strike action and collapsing NHS performance have provided a bleak backdrop to Mr Sunak's time in No 10.
The job has been made even more difficult by a series of controversies relating to standards and ethics. The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, is subject to an investigation over allegations of bullying, while Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory chairman, is under scrutiny over the handling of his tax affairs. Another review is taking place into the appointment of Richard Sharp as BBC chairman amid allegations he helped Boris Johnson secure a loan.
While Mr Sunak has argued he is following due process by letting independent investigations run their course, the controversies are uncomfortable for a Prime Minister who promised to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. Just 26 per cent of people believe he has delivered integrity, 36 per cent professionalism and 26 per cent accountability.
The Prime Minister has not been helped by gaffes such as posting a video of himself not wearing a seatbelt in a moving car - an error which earned him a fixed penalty notice (Mr Sunak’s second, having also been issued with one for breaking lockdown restrictions during partygate).
It is easy to dismiss such misdemeanours as irrelevances, but they risk cementing a damaging perception in voters’ minds that Mr Sunak is divorced from the realities of ordinary people. According to the poll, 69 per cent of people feel he is not in touch with ordinary people, compared with 22 per cent who think he is.
However, by far the biggest source of unhappiness among his parliamentary colleagues relates to substantive policy disagreements - particularly his decision to announce a slew of tax rises last autumn, and with tax cuts still off the agenda for March’s Budget.
'I don’t want another doom-filled Budget'
“We are moving into a high tax regime just at a time where we need to encourage growth,” says one former Cabinet minister. “That is a criticism that I think a lot of colleagues have got.”
Another MP agrees that Mr Sunak and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, have been too bearish. “I want a bright Budget, I don’t want another pessimistic doom-filled Budget of just more tax, no growth,” they say with exasperation. “We virtually snuffed the candle out at the end of the tunnel. I want a bloody bright light!”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, refrains from direct criticism but echoes the need to be more upbeat, saying Mr Sunak needs to “lift people’s heads to the far horizon”.
Mr Sunak and his allies might counter that these MPs have short memories. The tax rises and spending cuts in the Autumn Statement were after all introduced to steady financial markets thrown into turmoil by the unfunded tax cuts in Liz Truss’s “mini-budget”.
The Prime Minister is given some credit for stabilising things. "His first job was to steady the ship,” says a former minister. “This was no easy task - it was a sinking ship, heading straight for the rocks with a mutinous crew.”
An MP from the 2019 cohort says Mr Sunak has succeeded in his immediate task of “calming things down” after the psychodramas of the Truss and Johnson administrations. “People had had enough of politics invading their day to day life.”
His backbenchers also approve of his performance in the Commons - though they are at a loss as to why these communication skills seem to depart him in other settings. “The reason quite a few people didn’t get behind Rishi in the first leadership election was because he’s seen to be too slick, too smooth, a bit cringe,” the 2019er says. “When he’s not under pressure at the despatch box, he goes back into cringe mode.”
Their concern is that a reputation for dull competence will not win the next election - something which seems to be borne out by the polling. While voters are inclined to think Mr Sunak has improved competence (38 per cent believe he has made the Government more competent than his predecessors, compared with 22 per cent who believe it has become less competent), 61 per cent of people do not think he is likely to win the next election.
Channel and EU issues still to be solved
As well as fuming about tax, Tory MPs on the Right argue he has moved too slowly to stop small boats crossing the Channel and to curb strike action, and been too soft on the EU over Northern Ireland. His five pledges to the public are dismissed by one as “rather timid”.
It's only 100 days, but Mr Sunak is already running out of time. A MP who survived the deluge of the 1997 election believes that younger colleagues “can’t comprehend the precipice that lies ahead”. The MP sees the same “symptoms” they witnessed at the tailend of John Major’s government: “Indecision, agonising, a feeling of helplessness if not hopelessness. The inevitability that we were going to run out of road.”
There are optimists, like Bob Seely, who praises Mr Sunak for listening to his MPs on issues such as planning, and thinks that by the end of the year the Tories will be “gaining on Labour”.
But the local elections in May will be when simmering discontent could explode into open rebellion. “If we do as badly as is being projected at the moment, then I think that probably some colleagues will get very restless,” says one MP. Another predicts that having already caved in to backbench pressure over planning, onshore wind and online safety, by the summer Mr Sunak will be “faced with major rebellions… the parliamentary party might be ungovernable” (a revolt is already brewing over plans to ban trans conversion therapy).
Mr Sunak has made boats a priority, but a third MP says that if he doesn’t turn things around fast, Tories will have a different type of vessel on their mind.
“Many people will be saying ‘is this lifeboat going to support me’? Do I need another one?”
A Government source said: “Since Rishi became PM, the Government has stabilised the economy and mortgage rates, deepened ties with global allies on our collective economic security and support for Ukraine, and set out a concrete plan to tackle the unfairness of illegal migration.
“But there’s so much more he wants to deliver, which is why he has set out his five priorities as the starting point for his vision to build a better future for our children and grandchildren - based on a more innovative economy, stronger communities and an NHS built around patients.”