Harsh V Pant
As Britain gets ready for the coronation of King Charles III next week as the 40th reigning monarch since 1066 with all the pomp and pageantry that the nation is often known for, the political wheels of the country continue their slow churn. Last week, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finally lost his long-standing ally and deputy, Dominic Raab, he also managed to consolidate his hold over power with the appointment of his close allies to senior positions in the government. Sunak is increasingly making it clear that he is playing a long game and, despite challenges, is unlikely to give up easily.
Raab has been in the eye of the storm for quite some time now about his bullying behavior, and at least 24 people had complained about him during his terms as justice secretary and foreign secretary under Boris Johnson and as Brexit secretary under Theresa May. Sunak, who got significant support from Raab during his Conservative leadership campaign, had been under pressure to reveal if he knew about these allegations when he appointed Raab as his deputy in October last year.
A month later, the Prime Minister appointed a senior lawyer to investigate the allegations against Raab; he concluded last week that Raab had engaged in an “abuse or misuse of power” during his stint as foreign secretary, and “acted in a manner which was intimidating” towards officials at the Ministry of Justice. Though Raab strongly defended himself, he had to resign last week, a move that Sunak praised, saying that his former deputy had kept his word after “rightly” undertaking to resign if any evidence of bullying might come to light in the report.
Raab is a talented and formidable political operative. He will soon bounce back on the political scene. But for Sunak losing his number two is a big setback in the short term. However, he quickly used the opportunity coming his way by appointing two of his closest allies to key positions in the government – Oliver Dowden as Deputy Prime Minister and Alex Chalk as Justice Secretary.
What is also interesting is that both of them had voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum despite being close friends of Sunak. In some ways, Sunak is signaling that he is not averse to working with those holding different views, thereby expanding his base within the party. He also recognises that this is a time to put his stamp on the government even more strongly as the Conservative Party is in no real mood for internal upheaval after its close encounter with catastrophe last autumn. Sunak has brought much needed calm to the Conservatives and there is genuine appreciation for it among the Tories.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party that continues to lead in opinion polls is facing its own challenges as one of its senior MPs, Diane Abbott, had to be suspended for what Labour leader Keir Starmer described as “anti-Semitic” remarks. Labour has struggled to get rid of anti-Semitism within its ranks and its former leader Jeremy Corbyn remains suspended from the party for suggesting that the problem is more hyped than real.
Yet, Sunak’s challenges are manifold and they are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. His Illegal Migration Bill, aimed at stopping people from crossing the English Channel in small boats, has been deemed to be in contravention of the UK’s human rights obligation by the nation’s Equality and Human Rights Commission. But more significantly, an inquiry has been launched earlier this month into whether Sunak breached the MPs’ code of conduct, which stipulates that MPs “must always be open and frank in declaring any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its committees, and in any communications with ministers, members, public officials or public office holders.”
This is concerning his wife’s shares in a childcare agency, though Sunak has maintained that “the prime minister has taken his obligation to declare everything very seriously, he has done that for a number of years.” The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that is looking into the matter has extended its investigation this week into another potential breach by the Prime Minister pertaining to disclosing details about an ongoing investigation.
On the face of it, British MPs breaching the MPs’ Code of Conduct is not a new problem. Labour leader Keir Starmer himself has breached it around eight times. But the opposition parties have linked this investigation against Sunak to a wider perception problem facing the Conservative Party – one that links the Tories to callous sleaze and corruption even as ordinary Britons face a serious crisis in living standards.
For Sunak, the biggest challenge is to delink the Tory brand from his toxic predecessor, Boris Johnson. While he has succeeded in bringing the Conservative Party together for the time being, the long-term challenge of regaining the confidence of the electorate as the natural party of governance is going to take time. The more distracted he is with his own problems, the less likely he will be able to effectively lead a party that is desperate for a winning political agenda.
The article was published by NDTV as In Picking New Deputy, Rishi Sunak Puts A Stamp On Government on April 25, 2023.
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