MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — U.K. Prime Minster Rishi Sunak appears a leader on rocky ground as growing disunity from within his Conservative government is giving rise to more radical factions, even as the party gears up for a General Election next year.
The discord Sunak sought to assuage when he assumed leadership of the party last year following a series of Tory psychodramas has resurfaced this week as ministers assembled in Manchester, England, for the annual Conservative Party Conference.
Members of Parliament (MPs), including Liz Truss, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, voiced their disapproval of Sunak’s leadership — or perceived lack thereof — while faction leaders have urged donors to defund the party until major reforms are made.
The rebellion comes as the Tories face stiff competition from the opposition Labour Party, which continues to lead in opinion polls, and party pushback promises to dominate Sunak’s leadership in the lead up to the election, likely due this time next year.
Truss leads the rebellion
Truss, the Ronald Reagan enthusiast who lasted just 44 days in office, stole the show as the conference got underway in earnest Monday, attracting a crowd of hundreds as she admonished Sunak’s policies and again made the case for immediate tax cuts.
The ex-prime minister, whose low-tax agenda led to the implosion of her government last year, retains significant support among party faithfuls — many of whom voted her into power — and at least 60 MPs have now joined her Conservative Growth Group.
The MPs backing Truss’ vision to “make Britain grow again” account for less than a fifth of total elected Conservative MPs, but their number is roughly equivalent to Sunak’s parliamentary majority, posing potential risks to the prime minister’s ability to govern.
Among the rebel members is former Home Secretary Priti Patel, who on Sunday said her party was “at a crossroads,” adding that it was Sunak who had “undermined [the Conservatives’] ability to govern.”
Patel was speaking at a gala dinner hosted by the Conservative Democratic Organisation — a faction closely aligned with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose founder, Lord Peter Cruddas, used the event to urge members to cut donations to the Conservative Party until it undergoes reform.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Lord Cruddas said, adding that members “should not blindly support a Conservative Party that no longer represents our values,” and is “headed for electoral disaster.”
The CDO considers the effective ousting of Truss and Johnson, and the later default installation of Sunak, as anti-democratic and against the will of the party membership.
Brexit proponent Nigel Farage, former leader of the populist, right-wing U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), was also in attendance and later said that a wing of the Conservative Party is “very much coming in [his] direction.”
“That’s what the great battle’s going to be after they lose the next General Election: which wing of the party wins,” Farage said of the Conservatives in a Tuesday interview with the News Agents podcast.
A struggling Conservative brand
The rising discord from within the party is also reflected in public sentiment, with many Britons expressing their dissatisfaction with the Tories’ 13-year stronghold.
Recent opinion polls show Labour with a 20-point lead over the Conservatives, only a slight narrowing from July.
“The Conservative brand is struggling,” Gideon Skinner, head of politics research in public affairs at market research firm IPSOS, said Monday. “Two-thirds [of voters] think it’s time for a change, and that’s the real struggle that the Conservative Party has to turn around.”
According to IPSOS’s latest data, almost two-thirds (61%) of voters see the Conservatives as out of date, while just one-fifth (21%) see them as fit to govern. Nearly three-quarters (73%), meanwhile, see Sunak, Britain’s richest prime minister in modern history, as out of touch.
It comes as Britain struggles with still high inflation and falling living standards, which have led to ongoing industrial action over working conditions and pay.
Thousands of medical professionals marched outside of the conference Tuesday, demanding fairer wages, while the latest strikes by train workers on Wednesday will disrupt travel for the second time this week.
“There’s this bleak public mood which is combined with the worsening public brand of the Conservatives, all leading to this sense that it’s time for a change,” Skinner said.
Later Wednesday, Sunak is expected to use his headline speech at the close of the conference to reassert his authority and outline a number of new policies that he hopes will help him win support from both the electorate and his own party.