Can Sunak now purge Johnsonism for good?

The prime minister will doubtless be urged to heal the divisions in his party—but it’s too late for that

June 10, 2023
Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Party divisions cannot always be avoided. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Clichés are often true, but not always. Not every cloud has a silver lining, good things sometimes swerve away from those who wait. Likewise, one of the most persistent but deceptive political clichés is that voters don’t like divided parties.

It’s not completely wrong. All else being equal, unity impresses voters more than division. But all else is seldom equal. Party divisions cannot always be avoided. The test is how parties, and especially their leaders, deal with them. 

In the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s dramatic resignation on Friday, jumping before he was pushed by the findings of the Privileges Committee, Many Tory MPs will now doubtless be urging Rishi Sunak to “bring the party together”—to reach out to Boris Johnson’s supporters, still a powerful force in the party, and seek a modus vivendi. This would presumably involve concessions on policy: Europe, taxes, immigration and so on. 

However, Johnson’s vituperative resignation letter leaves no doubt that the last thing he wants is for Sunak to succeed in such a venture. Whether or not Johnson has any real chance of returning to frontline politics, his statement that he is leaving parliament “at least for now” shows he has not yet abandoned that ambition. And as long as he clings to it, he will plainly see it as being in his interests for Sunak to fail. A crushing Tory defeat at the next election would give Johnson the hope, however deluded, that his party will fall to its knees and beg him to return.

That’s why any attempts by Sunak to build bridges to the Johnson camp are bound to fail. Harmony is the last thing they want. And indeed, it would make Sunak look weak. He became prime minister having spent his contest with Liz Truss, and his words and actions since then, setting out his stall as a man who insisted on fiscal responsibility and rejected the fantasies of unfunded tax cuts. He resigned as Johnson’s chancellor less than a year ago, citing that very issue. He could not reverse that stance now—and extend an olive branch to the reality-denying wing of the party—without appearing ridiculous. 

In short, division cannot be avoided. So what should Sunak do? The prime minister may be reluctant to follow the example of the leader of the opposition, but he would be wise to do so. When Keir Starmer won the contest to lead the party, having trounced the Corbynite candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynites trotted out “bring the party together” and other phrases designed to keep them in the game: “broad church”, “no witch hunt” and so on. 

Starmer calmly, decisively and utterly effectively rejected them. He established a clear majority on the party’s National Executive, secured changes to the party’s rules that weakened the left, ensured that the vast majority of new parliamentary candidates abided by his brand of moderate politics, and, most importantly of all, kicked Jeremy Corbyn out of the parliamentary Labour party.

These were all divisive measures—but they helped Labour reach the position where Starmer is clear favourite to become prime minister after the next election. Here is a great example of the fact that it’s not division as such that harms a party, but unresolved division. Leaders that stand their ground and win the day gain far more supporters than they lose. (Forty years ago, when Labour previously had trouble with the far left, Neil Kinnock gained respect for the way he routed Tony Benn and the Trotskyist Militant tendency.)

An example that might appeal more to the Tories is Margaret Thatcher. When she became party leader in 1975, the great majority of her shadow cabinet were centrists who had served happily under Edward Heath. Gradually she established her authority, winning some of her critics round and kicking others out. As prime minister she made big changes to Britain. She did so not by brokering flimsy compromises but by winning arguments inside her party and ensuring ministers and civil servants worked together to implement her plans. 

Now, the risk of course is that a leader might fight—and lose (as, indeed, Johnson did last year). This must be avoided. Since Sunak has no real prospect of securing party unity, except on terms of abject surrender to Johnson’s allies and others on the right, he needs to learn from Starmer, Kinnock and Thatcher: fight to win. 

This will mean taking risks—for example, snuffing out any lingering hopes that Johnson might have of returning to parliament at the next election by contesting a safe seat such as Henley (which he used to represent). And given that Johnson’s resignation letter effectively accuses Sunak of betraying the promises the Tories made in 2019, the prime minister needs to make brutally clear why, in the wake of Covid, Ukraine and recent rapid inflation, Johnson’s policy wish list is a dangerous fantasy.

Here’s one final thought. Britain’s constitution has always allowed the premiership to change hands in mid-term without a fresh election needing to be called. Politically, however, the argument for one is made whenever Downing Street changes tenants. Last year, the tenancy changed twice. Sunak lost the first contest and did not need even to fight the second time round. And now, the author of the very manifesto that provides the mandate for today’s Conservative government suggests that manifesto has been betrayed.

So, prime minister, how about seeking a vote of confidence in the House of Commons? Johnson’s allies can then decide whether to endorse the betrayal thesis and take the logical next step—join with Labour in bringing the government down and precipitating an early general election—or vote to support Sunak and let him carry on. My guess is that very few Tory MPs wish to face their local electorates just yet, and the vast majority would express confidence in him, rediscover their faith in our traditional constitutional arrangements and give him the opportunity to assert his authority. Such an air-clearing moment would do much to remove any threat posed by the man who so obviously wants to bring him down.