Right-wing Tories challenge Rishi Sunak to ‘fish’ in the ‘pond’ of reform

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Right-wing Tories challenge Rishi Sunak to 'fish' in the 'pond' of reform

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to Dover (Alamy)

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Rishi Sunak continues to face pressure to move further to the right to stem the leakage of votes to reform Britain, and it appears this pressure will increase as the divide between the Conservatives and Labor widens is bigger than ever.

A former foreign minister complained that the party must behave like a “conservative government, rather than a social democratic government pretending to be a conservative government” if it wants to protect its right-wing vote share.

“The reason people go to reform is because they think we don’t do Conservative things and generally Conservative voters expect a Conservative government to do Conservative things,” the disgruntled Tory MP said. PoliticsHome.

“There’s no point in trying to fish in Labour’s pond. We have to look at our own constituency.”

The Conservatives lost almost half the council seats they contested and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street in the recent local elections, sparking the latest battle for the party’s soul. That they also lost a parliamentary by-election on the same day with a historic swing to Labor added a fly in the already damaging ointment.

While the Conservatives are losing votes in all directions, it is the support they are losing to the right that seems to have most moved MPs. JL Partners’ latest voter intentions poll shows that 20 percent of people who voted Conservative in the 2019 general election plan to support Reform UK at the next election, while 18 percent plan to switch to Labor . Five percent plan to switch from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.

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As a result, there are increasing calls for Sunak to prioritize strengthening his policy offering for the right, including leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as a way of taking a tougher stance on of migration possible.

Robert Jenrick, the former immigration secretary, has become one of the most vocal public advocates of this view. Since quitting his government role at the Home Office last year, he has repeatedly accused Sunak of not being “conservative” enough on issues such as migration, and has repeatedly criticized the Prime Minister’s deportation plans in Rwanda as too lenient towards people trying to apply for asylum in the country. Britain.

This week, the MP for Newark – which many of his Conservative colleagues believe is positioning itself for a future leadership bid – said Sky News “we must ensure that as many reform voices as possible return to the Conservative Party in the coming weeks,” and described restricting immigration as the “most important” way to do this.

His views are shared by former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, former minister Simon Clarke and other MPs in the right wing of the parliamentary Conservative Party.

The fear among this part of the party is that, while it is highly unlikely that Reform UK will win a seat at the next general election, which Sunak must call before the end of the year, a split in the right-wing vote will help Labor in to win many elections. marginal seats.

But there remain concerns, even among some right-wing Tories, that attempts to overstep reforms could not only prove futile but make them even more unelectable.

A backbencher who described themselves as “very right-wing” on economic issues said they were uncomfortable with outbidding immigration reform and reducing illegal small boat crossings. smaller state.

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“Many reform voters will say the answer [on small boats] is to shoot them with machine guns. If you want to chase that vote, maybe you can get that vote. But you get 5 percent of the votes,” they said PoliticsHome.

More moderate MPs in the party’s One Nation wing feel these concerns acutely, and have long argued that by moving further to the right the Conservative Party will only minimize its wider appeal.

Justine Greening, the former centrist education secretary, observed in The guard that “the more Sunak has danced to the reformist political tune, the worse the party has done in the polls”.

Greening, who left the House of Commons in 2019, echoed the discomfort of many Tory MPs who fear that by prioritizing the threat posed by reforms, the Conservative party risks drifting further towards its ideological margins.

‘The madness is that when it comes to the national picture, the party is in a battle for a small group of voters with the third-placed party, Reform, while putting many more people at the center of British politics. is letting down and alienating Labour, which is in first place by a wide margin,” she wrote.

Luke Tryl, British director of More In Common, told us PoliticsHome There were a number of reasons why the Tories should be careful not to focus too much on the threat posed by Reform UK.

“It is difficult to see how there is a workable, specific strategy for dealing with reform that does not raise a whole host of other problems for the Conservative party,” he said.

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Tryl said his organisation’s research shows that people who have sidelined the Tories for reform since the last general election have a “deep contempt” for the Conservative Party and that it will be difficult for Sunak to win back even if he takes more right-wing positions. .

He added that by focusing too much on the issue of migration, the Tories risk “drowning out” issues that are more important to the wider electorate, such as the cost of living, while also diverting attention from relatively stronger parts of Sunak’s message, such as the economy. on Friday’s news that the economy grew by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of the year.

“The economy remains the strongest string in the Tory bow heading into the general election,” Tryl added.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, argued this week The House that across Europe, centre-right parties such as the British Conservatives have tried to destroy support for right-wing challengers by “ramping up the rhetoric and ramping up the policies”. However, Bale wrote that they have instead inadvertently fueled their momentum by drawing attention to issues their supporters care about most, such as illegal migration.

But these arguments show little sign of deterring an increasingly restless section of the parliamentary Conservative party, who are staring likely defeat in the face and convinced that the strongest electoral hand they have lies in playing more right-wing cards.

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