Will Rishi Sunak Ever Be Able To Emerge From Boris Johnson's Shadow?

Voters want the PM to stand up to his controversial predecessor - and believe not doing so makes him look "weak".
Boris Johnson still casts a huge shadow over Number 10
Boris Johnson still casts a huge shadow over Number 10
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

There is an iconic scene in the otherwise-disappointing Godfather Part III in which Mafia boss Michael Corleone, frustrated at his thwarted attempts to escape his criminal past, declares: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Something similar has happened to Rishi Sunak in the past week. Just when he thought he had finally escaped the giant shadow cast by Boris Johnson, it has re-emerged like a great black cloud of despair over 10 Downing Street.

It began with the publication of Johnson’s resignation honours list, in which he handed gongs to friends, allies, former advisers and various other supporters.

Just hours later, the former PM stunned Westminster by announcing that he was standing down as an MP in protest at the privileges committee finding him guilty of misleading the Commons over partygate.

When their report was finally published on Thursday morning, it was easy to see why Johnson was upset, albeit impossible to disagree with their conclusions.

MPs will now be given a free vote - if it happens - on Monday on whether to endorse the report and its findings, including the recommendation that Johnson be refused the parliamentary pass routinely given to former members.

With some Tory MPs having said they will vote to reject the report, Sunak is presented with a dilemma.

He could back the committee and further stoke the civil war within his party, or confirm Keir Starmer’s charge that he is a “weak” leader by finding a reason not to be present when the vote takes place?

Former Tory cabinet minister David Gauke, one of Johnson’s most outspoken critics, told HuffPost UK that the prime minister should show that he is on the side of political probity, even if it provokes the ire of Johnson’s supporters.

He said: “Rishi Sunak has the opportunity to show leadership, stand up for integrity, professionalism and accountability, and distance himself from a disgraced predecessor.

“To do that, he needs to walk through the lobbies and endorse the Privileges Committee report.”

That view chimes with focus groups carried out by the More In Common think tank, which show that voters believe the prime minister must stand up to his controversial predecessor.

Luke Tryl, a former Tory adviser who is the group’s UK director, told HuffPost UK: “It emerged more strongly after the locals, particularly with more Blue Wall, Cameronite voters who are glad to have seen the back of Boris but worry that Sunak is still allowing him to dominate the agenda.

“They want Rishi to be forceful and stand up to Boris. The danger of not doing that means he comes across as weak, but it’s not helped by the fact that Boris is such a big figure.”

A Labour source said the Tories are are “an ungovernable rabble, obsessed with their own internal wars rather than the country”.

“It’s no good Sunak talking tough but ducking challenges,” he said.

“He should be telling his MPs to vote to support the report and he should he leading from the front in doing so.

“If Sunak doesn’t locate a backbone and stand up to his party, it’ll be a ball and chain clamped to his ankle the whole time because let’s face it, large parts of the Tory Party are mad, bored and completely divorced from reality.”

A senior Conservative adviser said there had been a “complete breakdown in discipline” in the party.

“Rishi is just invisible - it’s a bit like having a supply teacher who commands no actual respect,” they said.

One veteran backbencher said the prime minister should not fear taking on Johnson as his support is overblown.

He said: “Johnson is not actually hugely popular with our MPs and had few allies left in parliament by the time he resigned.”

One such Johnson-sceptic is John Baron who, despite also being a Brexiteer, believes the party must now move on.

He told Times Radio: ”[Boris] should just retire and not create problems for the Conservative Party.

“Just step down now if you have to, and just let us get on with the job of governing the country, because Rishi as prime minister is doing a good job.”

But few doubt that Johnson’s ambition is to return to parliament, become Tory leader and, ultimately, prime minister again.

One pro-Johnson former minister said: “I think if anyone can come back, he can. But the committee has acted in a way that makes it much harder than any of us would have ever feared in even the most brutal scenario.”

Despite the gathering economic gloom and Labour’s continued opinion poll lead, there was speculation this week that Sunak could call a snap election this October.

Some saw this as an attempt by No.10 to keep fractious Tory MPs in line, but one former cabinet minister told HuffPost UK: “It makes absolutely no sense. Rishi should go long, show that he has things under control and firmly set himself apart from Liz Truss and Boris.

He should show this is a totally different leadership.”

Most observers believe the most likely date for the election is October next year, and one veteran Tory MP said that, despite everything, the party could still pull off a surprise victory “if only we would just stop punching ourselves in the face”.

As he surveys the latest political pile-up caused by Boris Johnson, Sunak could be forgiven for thinking that is a very forlorn hope indeed.


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