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Rishi Sunak Press Conference Reaction

07.12.23 | Written by Dan Humphreys

Another day and another crisis for the Prime Minister. Served with another lesson in how not to handle crisis communications.

The resignation of former Sunak loyalist Robert Jenrick has triggered the latest weakening of the already shaky foundations on which Sunak’s premiership were resting. Centring around the vexed issue of ‘stopping the boats’ by deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, Jenrick has ostensibly resigned on a point of principle. Cynics among us might assume that it has more to do with currying favour with the right wing of the parliamentary party and party membership.

Sunak’s response, having failed to convince his former ally to stay on board and take the legislation through Parliament is to push forward with the legislation. That is not surprising. The decision to hold a press conference takes a little more explanation.

When a Prime Minister finds his or her back against the wall there is a case for going out and making the argument. For taking on your critics head on. But for that to be successful you need to have very good communication skills. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and David Cameron had the ability to do this – Clinton in spades. But Sunak, to state the now bleedingly obvious, is no Bill Clinton.

Rishi Sunak has many admirable qualities. He is a hugely intelligent and hard working man with a commitment to public service. He has identified a number of problems that do resonate with the British public, the majority of whom tend not to dislike him. But when it comes to communicating, time and again Sunak comes across as tetchy and unable to land a persuasive argument. The post-Jenrick resignation press conference was further evidence of this. A (somewhat) logical argument overshadowed by poor delivery and too many incoherent points. Insisting that we shouldn’t let foreign courts dictate to us while simultaneously arguing that we need to pass this legislation because, to all intents and purposes, this is what the Rwandan government has insisted upon couldn’t be less consistent.

This speech was an approach that might have worked had he given it, warts and all, in private to his MPs. But for the reasons identified above it was always going to be hopeless when given in public with questions from a justifiably unsympathetic media.

So where do we go from here? The first question he faced was the one everyone was expecting. Will next week’s vote in the House of Commons be a confidence vote? In effect, is he saying as John Major did, ‘put up or shut up’? In short, no. It won’t be a confidence vote and as such Conservative back bench MPs will face no consequence for voting against the bill.

We will find out next week how many of his MPs will vote against the bill. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman has already indicated that she will. The objection from Jenrick seems to be that it doesn’t go far enough. While that is a reason for saying he can’t be the Minister to take it through Parliament it doesn’t quite stack up as a reason to vote against it. If I ask Santa for a brand new Lamborghini for Christmas and he sends me a second hand Porsche I won’t be sending it back on a point of principle. Likewise, many critical Conservative MPs may go along with this as something that goes in what they see as the right direction.

Attempting to blame the Labour Party if this vote isn’t won won’t wash and it will further weaken the Prime Minister’s standing in the country. But for him to be unseated either the Conservative Parliamentary Party or the House of Commons will have to hold a vote of no confidence. My sense is that we’re still some way from that point. As the old seasonal adage goes, turkeys don’t vote Christmas and Conservative MPs must see that if we go to the polls in the new year not many Conservative MPs will be reporting back for duty after the general election.

More will become clear over the next week or so. What is for certain is that today, the likelihood of Rishi Sunak going down in history as a Prime Minister who never won an election grew even greater than it was this time yesterday.