Rishi Sunak tries to bring his MPs together at garden party for Conservatives

Politics

The prime minister spent Monday evening doing his best to bring his restive party back together with a garden gathering for all Conservative MPs. 

Guests were treated to a spread of Yorkshire pork pies from Rishi Sunak’s own constituency.

There was also quiche and new potatoes, which seemed to have gone down well with those I spoke to on the way out.

But given the increasingly open criticism of the party’s strategy and leadership from a growing number of MPs, small talk with the boss was surely an awkward affair.

It’s true that the prime minister’s most high-profile critics did not deign to make an appearance. There was no sign of the former Home Secretary Priti Patel, who warned about the party’s “managed decline” at the weekend, nor Nadine Dorries or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But the leaders of the Brexiteer European Research Group were there in force, striding into Downing Street with expressions of serious intent. I asked whether they believe the party needs a change of strategy.

“It could be improved,” said John Redwood, with Craig Mackinlay nodding in agreement.

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“We need a strong growth strategy, the end of the small boats disaster, and improved policy on legal migration – the people of Britain need more better jobs.”

Many in Westminster also saw yesterday’s speech from the current home secretary – ostensibly on migration – as more akin to the launch of a leadership campaign.

Mr Redwood however insisted Suella Braverman was not making a sneaky pitch for the top job.

“No, she is pitching for better policy and she’s saying a lot of good things,” he said.

“She’s stating the obvious,” added Mr Mackinlay.

Lee Anderson, vice chair of the party agreed: “Super Suella, it’s as simple as that!”

Clearly the home secretary has a lot of fans in the right of the party.

Others sounded exasperated at their colleagues seemingly crumbling back into disunity.

“Those conferences are unhelpful”, said Martin Vickers, MP for North East Lincolnshire.

Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood told me they need to keep “The People’s Front Of Judea” on side (Monty Python reference).

Sally-Ann Hart, MP for Hastings, was one of many who insisted the Tories need to stick to their guns.

“We need to keep calm and carry on. The message I got on the doorstep is that a lot of people didn’t go out and vote, lots said they wanted to send a strong message to us to stop squabbling and get on and deliver.”

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, also stuck to the official line.

“We’ve made good progress but there’s much more to do.”

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2:20

How do migrants affect our economy?

Education minister Kelly Tolhurst claimed calls for a change in direction are an “overreaction”.

“We are governing,” she said. “Rishi is getting on with the job and we’re focusing on his five priorities.”

But others, while supportive, were rather less enthusiastic about the state of the party.

“It’s fine,” said veteran David Davis. “It’s much better than it could have been. I think Mr Sunak has brought us back from where we were six months ago – we’re en route now to improve on that.”

So far the prime minister has proved adept at neutralising potential rebellions – over housebuilding and wind farms for example (admittedly by giving in to backbench critics before they could muster the numbers for a vote).

The much-vaunted effort to reject the Windsor Framework, led by Boris Johnson, fizzled out with just 22 supporters.

But could the reckoning from the local elections finally be the moment the wheels start to come off the prime minister’s smoothly operating political machine?

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