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Cycle of (Self) Destruction


Fancy a different Conservative Prime Minister? We haven’t had a new one for over a year now. Crazy though this sounds, the plot to replace Rishi Sunak in time for the election is for real. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, all it’s likely to achieve is an even bigger Labour majority on the night.

Before we dismiss the current Tory turmoil as so much silliness, it’s worth remembering how swiftly things can happen when we least expect them.

Take how the Lady Who Was Not For Turning was turned out of Number Ten.

‘I fight on, I fight to win,’ Margaret Thatcher boldly proclaimed back in 1990, when the leadership contest suddenly turned sour on her.

She resigned the next day, ruefully observing at her last cabinet meeting: ‘It’s a funny old world.’

As for top table colleagues who’d advised her to go, she remarked bitterly: ‘It was treachery with a smile on its face. Perhaps that was the worst thing of all.’

Back to the here and now, top Tories of pretty much all stripes immediately turned on the former cabinet minister who sparked the latest flood of hostile headlines.

He is, they declared, everything from a complete twat to … rude word alert? Best not go there.

But Sir Simon Clarke’s apocalyptic contention, that if Sunak is not ousted the party will be ‘massacred’ at the election, did strike a chord among MPs terrified for their own career prospects.

The opinion polls all tell the same story, with only small variations in their degree of stridency. Leaving open only the question of exactly how huge the Labour majority will be.

They also show that while Sunak was initially an asset, as he was more popular than his party, he’s now stuck in the same dreary doldrums as the rest of them.

At the same time, there’s little evidence that Sir Keir Starmer is exactly the nation’s pin-up boy, largely thanks to his – let’s face it – less than charismatic persona.

There’s also the small matter of what he’d actually do in office. It makes sense to keep his political powder dry as long as he can, but a few hefty bullet points might help, excuse mixed metaphor.

Nonetheless, as things stand, all he needs to do is not say much, and not be the Tory leader, and it looks like a shoo-in.

Which begs the question – why, exactly?

The stand-out fact is probably that the Conservatives have, in recent years, come across as a party with a death wish.

Apart from having got through four leaders in as many years, they’ve nailed their colours to a policy on which they fundamentally disagree among themselves.

The bitterly contested plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has generated miles and miles of column inches, all about how much they’d dearly love to exile one another.

At the same time, not only does the viability of the scheme remain open to serious question, there’s also scant evidence that illegal immigration worries voters as much as it does the Tory membership.

Far further up the list is the condition of the health service, which looks set to get worse thanks to the ongoing pay dispute with senior doctors, and the state of the economy.

Inflation has at last taken a tumble, but, after fourteen years of Tory rule, real incomes are stagnant at best, public services are in a desultory state, and taxes are at a seventy-year high.

Assuming, therefore, that Starmer does win the election he’ll inherit the mother of all poisoned chalices. Which, by the way, looks set to get even nastier come the March budget.

That’s because Sunak and the Chancellor are both dropping ever so broad hints that ever so nice tax cuts are on the way.

Problem being, particularly from Starmer’s point of view, this catnip for the voters for now will have to be clawed back, at some point after the election.

This warning, from respected economists everywhere, has now been heavily underlined by no less than the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, who’s paid to mark the treasury’s homework.

Respected think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has also weighed in, with the warning that it’s inevitable that taxes will go up again, or public services will have to be cut further.

An absolute Hobson’s choice for Prime Minister Starmer. The only question will be how soon he becomes nearly as unpopular as his predecessor, whoever that turns out to be.

Not that the plotters against the current incumbent are thinking that far ahead.

They’re small in number, but deadly of purpose. Around a dozen former high-ranking special advisers with their own headquarters, a hardcore of disenchanted MPs and several well-heeled backers.

It’s said they’ve set their sights on the two forthcoming by-elections that the Tories are expected to lose, and possible negative reaction to the budget.

Failing both those things, a wipeout at the town hall elections in May, would, they hope, surely get the numbers of Conservative MPs calling for a new leader up to the necessary mark.

In the meantime, they’re keeping a watchful eye on the poll ratings of the right-wing Reform Party, that are creeping up, to a point that they’re level-pegging with the Lib Dems.

The plotters’ rationale being that the Rwanda wheeze wasn’t such a bad call after all, as, they believe, there’s a bigger appetite for cracking down on illegal migration than the Tory moderates imagine.

Then there’s the joker in the pack, Nigel Farage.

He, after all, did found the predecessor to Reform, and he did, after all, pretty much single-handedly, spook David Cameron into holding the Brexit referendum that cost him his premiership.

While Farage is tantalising everyone with publicly toying with having another crack at becoming an MP, it’s not an impossible stretch to picture him one day leading the Conservatives.

There’s no doubt, in spite of what they’re being careful not to say now, that a wide swathe of Tory MPs currently dreading the dole queues wouldn’t be altogether averse to having a new leader.

Or, taking that only a short hop further, the title of an old Beach Boys’ song springs to mind: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice.’

Much has been written about how Sunak’s coming across as a bit tetchy these days, and who can blame him? But he’s not the only one.

The management of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park have been having a spot of bother lately with eight mostly African grey parrots, who have a disturbing habit that more might pick up.

They’ve moved the main offenders to a larger flock in the hope that the others will teach them the error of their ways.

Of course they do accept it could go the other way, and they could end up with not eight but a hundred naughty birds on their hands.

Already they’ve had to put up a disclaimer that reads: ‘We cannot be responsible for what you hear!’

Fact remains that the original bunch whose language was more colourful than their plumage were an instant smash hit with the punters, who egged them on to be saucier still.

And the park’s chief executive has had to admit: ‘You never tire of being told to eff off by a parrot. You can’t help but laugh.’

Maybe Rishi Sunak should drop by, for useful tips on what to say to his colleagues.


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