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JASON GROVES: Too many Tory MPs have already given up on the next election. Rishi needs to shake them out of their torpor before it’s too late…
Six months ago, Rishi Sunak unveiled five flagship pledges for his premiership, declaring: ‘I fully expect you to hold my Government and I to account on delivering those goals.’
Yet from halving inflation to growing the economy, stopping the migrant boats crossing the Channel and cutting debt and NHS waiting lists, progress on the targets has in most cases stalled or reversed.
Debilitating NHS strikes look set to continue indefinitely. The Government has little money to throw at problems or to offer in tax cuts.
Labour’s lead in the polls, which nearly dropped to single figures during Mr Sunak’s fleeting political honeymoon, is now once again approaching 20 points.
With a general election due next year, time is of the essence. Yet a strange sense of lassitude has settled on Westminster, and on the Tory benches in particular.
Rishi Sunak arrives for The Spectator’s Summer Party in central London, July 5, 2023
Key legislation is being quietly ditched. MPs are being told to stay in their constituencies and campaign. Ministers and whips are giving way at the slightest hint of trouble, rather than risk a fight with their own MPs.
After seven years of political turmoil sparked by the Brexit referendum, MPs and journalists are whispering to each other in amazement: ‘There’s nothing going on.’
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Remarkably, on many days the Commons is breaking up early, sometimes absurdly so, because it has simply run out of things to do.
One day last month, for example, the House finished at 2.20pm, after less than three hours’ work.
By mid-afternoon, the tables outside the Red Lion pub on Parliament Street were thronged with MPs slaking their thirst in the sunshine, after what had passed for a day at the office.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is said to be deeply concerned by the lack of Government business — and the embarrassing sight of Parliament breaking up early. So concerned, in fact, that he has taken to granting ‘urgent questions’ on almost any topic to help pad out proceedings.
Urgent questions (UQs) allow MPs to summon a minister to the dispatch box to address a burning topical issue. They were once a rarity: during the entire 2007/8 session, for example, just four were granted.
The unlamented former Speaker John Bercow oversaw an explosion in UQs as part of his unofficial campaign against the pro-Brexit Government.
Sir Lindsay has a more benign agenda, but UQs continue to proliferate under his watch. Last month, he granted an ‘urgent’ question on a terrorist attack that had taken place in a school in Uganda. The atrocity was not a question for the British Government and, given it had taken place the previous week, it wasn’t urgent, either.
But it eked out proceedings for another half an hour, meaning that the Commons did not knock off until 5pm that day — a mere two-and-a-half hours early. Yet just as the Government is giving Parliament nothing to do, it is quietly dropping flagship pieces of legislation — not only from the last Queen’s Speech but from the 2019 Tory manifesto.
In May, the Government abandoned the Kept Animals Bill, which was meant to deliver on a string of manifesto commitments, including a ban on puppy smuggling, ending the export of livestock for slaughter and outlawing keeping primates as pets.
Last week, the Government jettisoned the flagship Bill of Rights, which was meant to shake up Labour’s Human Rights Act.
The Bill of Rights was an important piece of legislation that would have replaced the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. It was a cornerstone of the Queen’s Speech pledge to ‘strengthen the integrity of the UK’, and would have curbed the right of foreign criminals to use the ECHR to avoid deportation by claiming breaches to their right to a family and private life.
It would also have enshrined in law the ‘quintessential’ British right to free speech, to protect against creeping political correctness.
Government sources point out that some elements have been overtaken by other legislation, such as the Illegal Migration Bill which will give the Government the right to ignore interim injunctions from judges in Strasbourg, of the kind used to block the first migrant flight to Rwanda.
But the future of other provisions is unknown. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said only that the Government ‘remains committed to a human rights framework which is up to date and fit for purpose and works for the British people’.
For all the Tory criticism of Labour’s Human Rights Act, it now looks as if it will remain essentially unamended at the next election — after 14 years of Conservative rule.
Both the Kept Animals Bill and the putative Bill of Rights fell foul of the Government’s desire to avoid rocking the boat with its own MPs.
Sources said the two laws were drawn so widely that they were in danger of becoming ‘Christmas tree Bills’, which allow people to hang all sorts of amendments on.
Business managers feared Tory MPs on the Right could try to use the Bill of Rights to force a vote on, among other things, leaving the ECHR altogether. Tory MPs on the Left were already trying to use the Kept Animals Bill to push through a ban on ‘trail’ hunting, a controversial but legal alternative to hunting foxes with hounds. With a working majority of 60, Mr Sunak should be able to face down any rebellion and push ahead with key legislation. But the Tory truce at Westminster is so fragile that it is often easier to give way.
The flat atmosphere at Westminster is not helped by Mr Sunak’s frequent absences from Prime Minister’s Questions. The boisterous weekly session can help a leader fire up his troops.
The PM is a capable performer — but he complains to colleagues that the preparation needed for the session is a ‘time sink’ that wipes out almost a day each week.
Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, London. Wednesday June 28, 2023
There is always a legitimate reason for his absences, but sometimes it feels like he is too quick to duck out.
With the Conservatives forced to defend three by-elections this month, and another two likely, it is not surprising that MPs and ministers are being sent out on the doorstep. Many Tory MPs are also fighting rearguard actions in their own constituencies, or busy polishing their CVs for life after Westminster.
Some senior ministers are already positioning themselves for a post-defeat leadership contest, with Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Education Secretary Gillian Keegan all parading their credentials in recent weeks.
Despite reports to the contrary, Mr Sunak has not abandoned hope of winning the next election. The workaholic Prime Minister spends his days locked in No 10 with aides, analysing spreadsheets designed to squeeze out every last ounce of performance.
But he cannot afford to ignore the malaise among his own backbenchers.
Labour MPs are more disciplined and hungry for power than they have been for a generation. By contrast, too many Tory MPs have already given up on an election that could still be 18 months away.
The listlessness on the Tory benches is damaging to morale. And it is contagious.
Mr Sunak needs to shake his MPs out of their torpor —before it’s too late.
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