One of the commonest sayings in British politics is that divided parties can’t win elections. On that basis, Rishi Sunak’s decision to sack Suella Braverman and bring back David Cameron looks perverse. Sacking a darling of the Conservative right wing, and giving one of the biggest jobs in politics to a one-nation centrist, is surely an act of political suicide.
However, the saying is not quite true. It misses out a crucial factor: whether the divisions are unresolved. Divided parties are often a fact of life. What matters is how their leaders deal with the situation. Unresolved divisions are fatal, not least because they make leaders look weak. But leaders who tackle divisions and defeat their opponents within their parties can emerge stronger and more popular.
In the mid-1980s, when Neil Kinnock fought and defeated the hard-left Militant group, his poll rating shot up. Boris Johnson, egged on by Dominic Cummings, forced out a whole range of experienced Conservative centrists in 2019. One can argue (as, indeed, I would) that this was bad for British politics and the long-term health of the Conservative party. But in the short term, it’s hard to argue with the 80-seat majority he secured in the general election that December. Of course, Labour helped him by offering the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn as the alternative prime minister. Even so, emerging victorious from his party’s bloodletting did him no harm with the general public.
Sunak, then, is gambling that he will emerge stronger from today’s reshuffle—and that the inevitable criticisms that he will now face from Braverman and others will do him more good than harm. Much as each battle that Keir Starmer fights and wins against Labour’s left wing strengthens the Labour leader, Sunak should—and perhaps will—anticipate future spats with his party’s nationalist right wing not with trepidation but with relish.
The precedent that appears to prove the opposite is John Major’s battle in the mid-1990s with his right wing. In July 1995 he stood down as Conservative leader in order to flush out his opponents. In those days, MPs alone chose the party’s leader. Major defeated John Redwood by 218 votes to 89. Two years later Major led his party to its worst defeat since 1906. So, the collapse of our theory? Not necessarily. At the time of Redwood’s challenge, Labour enjoyed a “poll of polls” lead of 29 points (55 per cent compared to the Tories' 26 per cent). In the 1997 general election, Labour won by less than half that: 13 points (44 compared to 31 per cent).
Terrible though the result was for the Conservatives, it would have been even more catastrophic had Major not secured at least some authority over his party. (Because of his narrow majority in parliament, he did not regain complete control. Sunak has less to worry about on that front.)
Not that Sunak has much chance of remaining prime minister after the next election. Labour’s lead has been too big for too long. We should not go overboard. Over the weekend, a new MRP poll (short for multilevel regression and poststratification) by Survation projected a Labour majority of 212. I have looked at past seat-by-seat MRP surveys and argued that they greatly overstate Labour’s advantage. My own estimate, taking Survation’s overall voting figures (Labour 46 per cent, Conservative 29 per cent) is that this would produce a Labour majority of around 130. (For the benefit of nerds, I have taken account of (a) new constituency boundaries, (b) Labour’s big advance in Scotland and (c) significant anti-Tory tactical voting in England and Wales.)
In reality, I would expect the gap to narrow to some extent as the next general election approaches. At the moment, around four million people who voted Conservative at the last election now tell pollsters they don’t know who they will vote for or won’t vote at all. They are the kind of people who have sat out recent byelections and led to loss after loss for the Tories. Many of them are likely to return to the fold when they are asked to choose a government.
In short, Labour is on course for a victory but not a landslide; and the Tories are heading for defeat but not oblivion. What Sunak has done today is give his party a chance of survival as a fighting force in the next parliament.
That leaves unresolved the question of who will succeed him as the next Tory leader, presumably soon after the next election. He may have marginalised his right wing for now, but can he persuade enough grassroot members to share his centre-right views and elect a successor with a similar outlook? In the cruel world of politics, he might have improved his party’s prospects of being a substantial opposition, only to see that blessing bestowed on the very people—and even the very person—that he has seen off today.