The law of holes tells us that ‘if you find yourself in one, stop digging’. It seems the Conservatives can’t. Through the summer, the government decided on a series of initiatives aimed at showing Rishi Sunak was the man in charge and voters could trust him. ‘A week is a long time in politics’; if things go wrong, three weeks is an eternity.
Up to their knees
The parliamentary autumn term has barely begun but already Sunak’s government has put both feet in it, up to and beyond the knees.
The week beginning 6 August was designated small boats week. It was meant to show the progress being made on reducing the numbers arriving on inflatables, one of Sunak’s signature pledges. That Thursday, 14 boats brought 756 new arrivals, the highest daily total for the year at that point (it was surpassed days later). The week ended with the discovery of legionella on the Bibby Stockholm and an evacuation of its handful of residents.
By 13 September, we had learned three more things: the Guardian reported that this strain of legionella was ‘the deadliest’ while LBC told us the cost of renting it in the first month was £500,000 (enough to clear 1,000 asylum claims) and that the Rwanda plan wasn’t likely to start before December.
Health week began the following Monday. It was meant to highlight initiatives to reduce waiting lists, another key pledge. By the end, the Institute for Government was reporting that “there has been little improvement in many of the major indicators across the service and the biggest drag on performance – ongoing industrial action – remains an unresolved problem.” As this article was being published, Sunak was admitting his pledge was in doubt. Health week was rounded off by the verdict on Lucy Letby.
RAAC and ruin
In the last week of the month, the government wanted to talk about education. Instead, all the country could discuss was reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) and the crisis in school building safety. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan tried to play the victim and found herself all over the front pages after an interview ended with her swearing.
It then emerged that she had made inaccurate and somewhat derogatory comments about the way schools had reported the state of their buildings, that government claims about the funding they had provided for repairs were not as they seemed, that some refurbishments had been cancelled and that Keegan’s department didn’t even have correct information on which schools were affected. When the Department for Education tried to issue a reassuring message to parents, the Labour Party’s communications team had a field day.
Like a beam of RAAC concrete, every aspect of the government’s plan has crumbled after contact with reality.
Bad to worse
Things went from bad to worse. The day MPs returned, Chris Pincher lost his appeal against suspension for sexual offences. Another by-election will soon take place for the Tamworth constituency on the same day as the Mid-Bedfordshire vote (19 October) to find a successor to Nadine Dorries.
By the middle of that week, a terrorist suspect had escaped from Wandsworth Prison, the BBC reported that water companies had been dumping sewage in dry weather and there were U-turns on the online safety bill and yet another on the UK’s relationship with the EU, this time rejoining the Horizon science programme (the exclusion from which has long aggrieved British scientists). By the end, we learned that an auction of offshore wind farm licences had failed to attract any buyers.
The smell of defeat
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some weeks ago, Andrew Rawnsley of the Guardian commented on the “smell of defeat” hanging over the Conservatives. This week, Rafael Behr (in the same paper) concluded that the Conservatives’ ‘small state good’ pitch to the electorate was a busted flush which the country had rejected. Rather drily, political editor of the Financial Times George Parker summed up the chaos as “not a great start to the year”.
The party itself is increasingly restive too. Reports are emerging that the 1922 Committee is receiving letters of no confidence in Sunak as prime minister. The Conservative Party conference takes place in early October. If it’s as underwhelming for him as their week of initiatives, the number is likely to increase. Then, as Jon Lis put it, “if the concrete thing dominates the news for the next fortnight and continues to implicate Sunak, the Tories might saddle us with our 6th prime minister in 7 years”.
This creates a nightmare scenario for the Conservatives. Sunak’s legitimacy as prime minister is already in question given he was voted in by Conservative MPs rather than the party membership or the country. Any attempt to impose another one might provoke serious public protest.
Alternatively they would have to call a general election. They have to call one at some point in the next 15 months. They will probably delay till the last moment in the hope something will turn up. Nonetheless they look very likely to lose whenever it comes and so badly, it might destroy them politically for a generation.
They are in the deepest of holes and they’ve dug it all by themselves.