Paul Montague-Smith considers how MPs might be feeling after a summer to forget as Rishi Sunak mulls a reshuffle ahead of conference season.
With Parliament having risen for its summer recess on July 21st, MPs will have been spending the last six weeks holidaying and touring their constituencies for the summer fetes and festivals.
For many Conservative MPs their WhatsApp groups will have been busy with reshuffle speculation and discussion about what needs to happen to have any chance of clinging onto power, even as the largest party, following the three by-elections on the day before Parliament broke up.
Labour won big in Selby and Ainsty – a mainly rural Yorkshire seat – with a nearly 24% swing from the Tories. Worrying enough, but the 29% swing that the Liberal Democrats achieved in Somerton and Frome will have Conservatives sweating – despite the non-summer we’ve been having – fearful of a pincer movement from the north and south-west that will squeeze them out of their jobs.
Another pasting at the polls is now heading Rishi Sunak’s way. Nadine Dorries – viewed by many as a parliamentary ‘squatter’ – has finally resigned as an MP, having originally said she would go in early June. The Liberal Democrats planned to table a parliamentary motion next week to forcibly remove her, which in all likelihood would have passed.
Whether that forced her hand, or whether the timing was originally intended to force a by-election around the October party conferences only she will know. Her excoriating letter of resignation, though, shows how deeply the core Johnsonites despise the current Prime Minister, as well as the civil service machine that they believe helped bring Johnson down.
Sunak will be hoping the October party conference and the policy announcements that will be made will kick off a revival in Conservative fortunes. It’s unclear whether there will be a significant reshuffle beforehand to form the team through to the general election. If there is it would need to be next week for the new ministers to get their feet under the table and prepped.
In any event reshuffles, however extensive, don’t tend to move the political dial. Most ‘relaunches’ also don’t have the impact hoped for. The Conservatives remain 20 or so points behind Labour. Of all the key issues most important to voters, the Conservatives remain ahead only on defence. Labour is now leading on traditional Conservative strong points of the economy, tax and law and order.
Successfully using the upcoming party conference as a launchpad to better figures is a big ask, not helped by the fact that for the first time I can remember, the Labour conference will be the following week and so they will have the final media hit. Usually, their conference is in the last week of September, preceding the Conservatives in the first week of October. Whoever in Labour planned the shift should get a bonus, as it gives them a significant communications advantage.
Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves are continuing to follow the New Labour playbook that was so successful in 1997. Reeves’ recent commitment not to introduce a wealth tax or increase the rate for capital gains or the top rate of income tax is designed to convince people that they are no longer the party of Corbyn or even Miliband. They’re determined not to do anything that will ‘scare the horses’ in the run to an election.
Importantly they also recognise that 2023 is not like 1997 and their strategy and communications need to reflect the reality today. The country that elected New Labour was full of optimism and hope. Today it’s more likely to be pessimism, cynicism and anxiety.
While some in the party, including its Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, might be uncomfortable with the ultra-cautious approach and ditching of expensive policy commitments, publicly Labour looks united and Starmer appears to be in control.
Labour’s conference will almost certainly reinforce that perception as they believe they are on the path to power. For Rishi Sunak and his team, presenting a united front during the Conservative conference will be a much bigger challenge, one I’d bet they won’t be able to achieve.