The weather for Sunak is bad, but the climate for the Tories is worse

Calling an election now would be like sailing into a hurricane in a rubber dinghy, Paris Gourtsoyannis says.

Until last week, all the speculation at Westminster was about an early election – Rishi Sunak going on the offensive, daring his opponents and calling out his critics.

Suddenly, all the talk is of a possible leadership challenge. Forget the cliche – a week is a short time in politics, or any walk of life. So what’s happened?

Well, a common error among those questioning the reality of climate change, is to point to the weather.

How about that record blizzard in New York? Or another washout British summer? Doesn’t look like global warming to me!

For a while, the passing distractions of the weather offered commentators the chance to ignore the broader, underlying trends that clearly pointed in one direction.

Political reporters can be an excitable bunch. It’s easy to understand why. Our job is to turn the slow, grinding gears of government into interesting, watchable and readable news on a daily basis.

It means we’re always at risk of falling into the trap of weather-watching, rather than analyzing the climate. From crunch votes one day to show-down summits the next, the political weathervane spins around in a swirling wind.

Back to that early election. The logic went that with local polls across England on May 2, there was a clear opportunity for Rishi Sunak to call a snap vote, and avoid the fallout from what will certainly be a total washout election for the Tories. Also, the country would go to the ballot box having just been given a 4p cut in national insurance over two fiscal statements by the Chancellor. Surely there’s no better time for an election than after a tax cut?

It was always wishful thinking by those hoping for a bit of political excitement. Labour’s lead over the Tories stands at roughly 20%, and if anything, it’s widening. The country is in recession. We’re on the downward slope of inflation, but living standards haven’t been squeezed as hard in living memory as they have over the past few years. Calling an election now would be like sailing into a hurricane in a rubber dinghy.

The threat of an early election is one of the main weapons Number 10 can wield against unruly MPs worried about losing their seats. Last week, backbenchers repeatedly lobbied the Prime Minister to rule out pressing the self-destruct button. Eventually, he was forced to do it.

Now that an election is off in May – effectively making a vote anytime before the autumn very unlikely – suddenly, Tory MPs have the space to ask themselves whether Rishi Sunak is the right leader to take them into that campaign. The handling of last week’s racism row, with Number 10 slow to accept that comments by the party’s top donor were racist, added to the perception that the Sunak administration is wooden, bad at politics and worse at communication.

Over the weekend, a flood of briefing to Conservative-leaning newspapers suggested a plot was being formed to unite right-wingers and moderates around Penny Mordaunt, the Commons leader who found ‘fame’ by carrying a ceremonial sword in King Charles’ coronation procession, and who twice was the party’s second-favourite to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

So, is the threat real? How to separate the weather headlines from the climate fact?

Certainly, a leadership challenge looks more likely than an early election ever did. And the local elections in England will provide a moment of significant danger. But it feels like excitable Tory MPs and political reporters are looking for the next storm to chase, rather than face up to climate reality.

Rishi Sunak might not be lifting the Conservative poll rating. But he isn’t responsible for it either. The party shows every sign of suffering from a drought of enthusiasm and ideas after 14 years in power, and voters are looking for relief. Yet another change of leader isn’t going to quench that thirst – there certainly isn’t evidence from the polling that Penny Mordaunt can do what Sunak hasn’t.

The next leader of the Conservatives has got to be prepared to accept a period in opposition, and the huge task of rebuilding. That’s an easier job if you haven’t led the party to a historically bad election defeat, which the Tories are forecast to suffer.

It would take an enormous amount of effort and self-delusion for the Tories to unite behind a rival to Rishi Sunak – if such a candidate can even be found for a fractured, storm-battered party. The Liz Truss whirlwind has everyone expecting a swift collapse, but everyone forgets just how drawn-out the process of levering Theresa May and Boris Johnson from power was. Both survived formal votes of no confidence.

The weather is bad for Rishi Sunak, it’s true. But the climate for the Tories is worse. Those focused on the bigger picture will be battening down the hatches, and waiting for the inevitable.

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