Unifying his fractious party may be Rishi Sunak’s biggest challenge of all

<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Rishi Sunak entered office with a tough hand, and how he plays it will determine whether his party can, at best, cling on at the next election, or at the very least avoid being routed.

His task has been made all the harder because, with the prospect of electoral defeat ahead, his own MPs have decided that there are more important things in life than party discipline.

For some, that means focusing solely on the needs of their constituents to boost their chances of re-election. The 50-strong rebellion over housing targets falls into this category.

For others, especially those who are standing down, it means promoting pet projects and sticking to principles for whatever time they may have left in office.

Either way, for Sunak, who is already firefighting on three fronts – the economy, the NHS and migration – it means more potential rebellions underlining just how divided his party is.

Many MPs on the Tory right, in particular, are feeling jittery. Already spooked by slumping in the polls on migration due to the handling of the Manston asylum seeker processing centre and small boats, their anxiety about the government’s direction of travel has been compounded by what many felt was a deeply un-Conservative tax-raising budget.

It was then sent into overdrive by Jeremy Hunt’s apparent flirtation – fiercely denied by No 10 – with a Swiss-style future relationship with the European Union. Sunak, already on the back foot over Brexit with the European Research Group, was left with little room for manoeuvre.

So, what does the prime minister do about it? One Tory ally quotes R&B artist Billy Ocean, an unlikely political inspiration, to explain No 10’s nascent strategy. “When the going gets tough, in Rishi’s case, the tough has to get going,” they say.

“There’s a lot of concern in the party about how he holds things together. I suspect that means he’ll now feel he has to take a tougher stance on a number of difficult political decisions coming up than he might have otherwise done.”

Downing Street plays down the idea that the approach is deliberate. “We’re not seeking to put labels on it,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson says. “The public want us to act, rather than just talk about acting. You’ve seen this government act in a number of ways which are important to the public.”

But there is a clear thread running through his approach to big ticket items in his in-tray. Rocked by the police’s inability to prevent Just Stop Oil protesters blocking roads and roundabouts, and with the threat of more disruption in the run-up to Christmas, Sunak has called an emergency No 10 summit.

On Thursday, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and police minister Chris Philp will host a roundtable with police chiefs to remind them, in no uncertain terms, that the government has, according to one insider, “toughened their powers, so they should use them”.

Sunak is determined to take a much harder position on migration after Braverman all but admitted that the government had lost control of the asylum process. He has held multiple meetings as he tries to prove that the Tories still have a grip on the issue, a key election battleground among swing voters.

He is also stepping up the rhetoric on strikes, despite some public sympathy for the plight of cash-strapped workers including nurses, who are taking industrial action over their pay and conditions. Sunak has tried to deflect attention on to Labour, urging Keir Starmer to call on his “union paymasters” to scrap the walk-outs.

Internationally, Sunak has beefed up his stance on both Ukraine and China, after he was seen as softer than either of his predecessors when, as chancellor, he sought significantly closer economic ties with Beijing and threatened defence spending cuts.

The Tories believe that a tough line on issues such as crime, immigration and security are their best chance of setting themselves apart from Labour and tackling the rising threat of the right, with Nigel Farage threatening to make yet another foray into frontline politics.

Downing Street insiders deny Sunak has been spooked by Labour’s attacks on him as “weak”. At prime minister’s questions last week, Starmer highlighted the decision to postpone planning reforms amid threats of a big Tory rebellion. “He is too weak to take on his party, too weak to take on vested interests,” he claimed.

But it won’t be lost on Tory strategists that exactly that attack line was used to great effect by Tony Blair against John Major in the run-up to the 1997 election, which brought an end more than a decade of Tory rule.

Labour MPs are happily promoting the narrative that Sunak is being pushed around by his divided party, while Starmer has stood up to the Labour left and taken a hard line on issues ranging from public spending to Brexit in order to become electable.

Sunak’s allies believe he has the capacity to get to grips with the big issues the country is facing but even some of them doubt the firmness of his hand. “Rishi is a clever guy, a technocrat and a negotiator,” one says. “It’s not really his style to be rigid to improve party discipline. I’m not sure how effective the tough man image really is or how long it will last.”