As the Conservative party’s Spring Forum gets underway in Blackpool, attention is turning back to domestic politics, with cabinet ministers publicly suggesting partygate is over – or more specifically that it is ‘fluff’ according to Jacob Rees-Mogg. A debate about tax is also underway on the fringes as Rishi Sunak continues to insist that he is a low tax Tory despite much of his behaviour since entering No. 11 suggesting the opposite.
When the Chancellor unveils the spring statement next week, MPs hope there will be an indication of Sunak’s alleged tax cutting preferences. While the National Insurance hike is now viewed as baked in, there’s speculation that there could be some form of tax cut elsewhere when it comes to boosting enterprise.
As for partygate, there is one key thing which aimed to heal Tory wounds that’s disappeared from the Spring Forum: the Tory parliamentary away day. Boris Johnson’s decision to hold a two-day bonding trip for the entire Tory parliamentary party has run into issues since its inception. First, it was moved from its original January date because of Covid. It didn’t help matters that Johnson’s perilous position at the time meant that Tory MPs were threatening to use the away day to decide on a new leader.
The rescheduled plan was to hold it in Blackpool ahead of Spring Forum – but the situation in Ukraine meant No. 10 decided it wasn’t the right time. It also didn’t help that some MPs were complaining about the journey. Is it off for good? There are plenty of MPs who think it sounds like an episode of The Thick of It and would be more than happy to see it canned. But not only do No. 10 insist that it will happen – and that it’s merely postponed – but MPs will now be treated to an extra team bonding event. Invites have gone out from No. 10 inviting all Tory MPs to a group dinner in a few weeks’ time. Though there is no word yet on how they plan to cater for 360 Tory MPs, with one joking it could be a potluck supper.
The plans comes as the new No. 10 team attempt to both steady the ship and bring a new focus to government. While there was no meeting with special advisers this Friday in No. 10 (they are weekly) on the grounds that too many aides were away, the past two have offered a glimpse into the new approach – one which is heavily focused on delivery and getting the party election ready.
When the new No. 10 policy chief Andrew Griffith addressed MPs a little over two weeks ago, he said there were only a little over 100 weeks until the Tories could be facing a general election. This was accompanied by an address by new director of communications Guto Harri asking aides to envisage the type of speech Boris Johnson would need to give ahead of a general election in a few years’ time in which he sought a second term, and then work out what to do now to make those pledges on things like levelling up a reality.
When new No. 10 aide David Canzini addressed special advisers last week, the conversation was even more frank. The ally of election guru Lynton Crosby told aides that they needed to be ready for an election by autumn next year – as it wasn’t clear yet when they would go to the polls so being prepared for any circumstance was key. ‘It took a lot of us in the room by surprise,’ says one attendee, who had been working on the assumption the most likely date was spring 2024.
What all Tory MPs and aides, however, can agree on is that when the fixed term parliament act is repealed next week, it will be a good thing. After years of strife under Theresa May and Johnson ahead of the 2019 election, having the power to decide when to go to the polls is viewed as a cause for celebration. But when Sunak sets out the grim economic picture next Wednesday in terms of inflation and the cost of living squeeze, it will be clear that the next election will be uphill for the Tories – whenever it is held and regardless of who leads them into it.
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