Real reason Sunaks not sacking Zahawi and co despite Boris-backers

Nadhim Zahawi: Sunak orders investigation amid tax questions

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When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister he warned the Conservative Party it was time to “unite or die”. But three mutinous months on and he has spent today rallying his troops once again with a team-building away day at his country retreat of Chequers.

Determined to get on with delivering on his five key priorities, Mr Sunak is instead battling his own rebellious MPs on countless fronts.

U-turns have become a theme of his fledgling premiership with high-profile climbdowns on housing and wind farms.

It explains why he is reluctant to sack Nadhim Zahawi – the Conservative Party Chairman – following revelations about his tax affairs. Mr Sunak is sticking by the former Chancellor for now, as he has done with Dominic Raab and Suella Braverman over recent controversies.

The perception is one of weakness, reinforcing Sir Keir Starmer’s narrative that the Prime Minister is too timid to stand up to his backbenchers. But Mr Sunak’s allies insist he is finding common ground and splitting the difference between rival groups.

His priority until now has been to provide stability after the chaos under Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, so he is trying to avoid fights with his MPs.

Some Tories have drawn parallels with John Major, another Tory PM who faced constant backbench rebellions and was described as “in office, but not in power”.

In Mr Sunak’s case there is one backbencher in particular who has more influence than anyone – his arch-nemesis Mr Johnson. And it just so happens that under-fire Mr Zahawi is a Johnson loyalist.

As is Ms Braverman, who was reappointed as Home Secretary by Mr Sunak after she broke the ministerial code. Mr Raab, the Justice Secretary, who is at the centre of multiple bullying allegations, held senior roles under Mr Johnson.

He may no longer hold the keys but Bojo’s influence continues to haunt the current inhabitant of No.10.

So who are the most powerful backbenchers in the Tory Party and why are they so influential?

Boris Johnson

No one has had more impact on British politics over the past decade than Mr Johnson. Hugely popular among Tory voters and MPs, his influence within the party is still mighty.

His loyal cheerleaders include fellow backbenchers Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg as well as current Tory Party Chairman Mr Zahawi.

Ms Truss and Priti Patel are allies too in what amounts to a hugely powerful backbench clan.

Liz Truss

Ms Truss has kept a low profile since leaving No. 10 in October following her brief premiership marked by the disastrous mini-budget.

But the South West Norfolk MP, who is understood to be planning to stand at the next election, remains influential with the right of the party.

Ms Truss, the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister, is expected to join other Tory backbenchers in calling for tax cuts ahead of Jeremy Hunt’s March Budget.

The Chancellor and the PM are holding fire on slashing the tax burden for now, but pressure is mounting on the pair.

Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries is one of Boris Johnson’s most ardent supporters and remained loyal when a mass revolt by ministers – sparked by Rishi Sunak’s resignation as Chancellor – forced him to quit last summer.

The former Culture Secretary backed Mr Johnson when he considered running in the Tory leadership race following Ms Truss’s resignation.

And the Mid Bedfordshire MP, who has accused Mr Sunak of leading a “ruthless coup”, is now penning a book about the former prime minister’s downfall.

With speculation of a future comeback by Mr Johnson continuing to swirl, Ms Dorries would no doubt play a key role in pushing for the charismatic 58-year-old to return.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

The Brexiteer is another close ally of Mr Johnson.

Now a backbencher, he has previously served as Brexit Opportunities Minister, Business Secretary and Commons Leader.

Since leaving government when Mr Sunak took the keys to 10 Downing Street, the North East Somerset MP has been vocal on legislation paving the way for a bonfire of EU laws.

And the former Cabinet minister is set to host his own show on GB News where he will tackle political issues.

Sir Graham Brady

Sir Graham Brady is the Chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs, a powerful group which only makes headlines when the Tory party is in crisis.

The committee, which is in charge of overseeing votes of no confidence in a party leader, played a key role at the end of Mr Johnson’s leadership in June 2022, also overseeing the vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

As well as counting up the letters of no confidence when a party leader is in crisis, the group also decides how a new leader is appointed.

In the leadership race which crowned Mr Sunak as party leader, Sir Graham’s committee was accused of imposing an “anti-Boris” threshold when it decreed that MPs needed to pass a 100-nomination threshold in order to appear on the ballot paper.

David Davis

David Davis’ clout in the Tory party stems partly from his role in the UK’s exit from the European Union, serving as Brexit Secretary from 2016 to 2018.

Mr Davis has been a vocal critic of Mr Johnson, famously calling for him to resign as PM in the Commons a year ago.

And just last month, he warned that the Conservatives would face a 1997-style landslide defeat if the former PM made a return.

He said that speculation about a comeback from the former Prime Minister “is corroding the party’s chances at the next election”.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith

Sir Iain Duncan Smith served as leader of the Conservatives while the party was in opposition from 2001 to 2003, later going on to be Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from 2010 to 2016.

The vocal backbencher, who regularly intervenes on issues relating to the UK’s entanglement with China, also built a reputation as a Johnson loyalist while he was in office.

While he recently intervened on the controversy surrounding Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs, saying he doesn’t believe the former Chancellor was deceitful “in any way”, he warned that the former Chancellor should “get it all out now”.

Simon Clarke

The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury was influential in forcing Mr Sunak to backtrack on wind farms.

It was his amendment to the Levelling Up Bill – backed by 34 Conservative MPs including Mr Johnson and Ms Truss – that effectively brought about the U-turn.

Ranil Jayawardena

A close ally of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, the former Environment Secretary is seen as an outrider for the recent backbench rebellions.

The North East Hampshire MP is also spearheading the new Conservative Growth Group pushing for tax cuts.

Theresa May

There is no doubt that Theresa May is a more interesting backbencher than she was a Prime Minister.

Regarded as a lone wolf, albeit a hugely effective one, she is the third former Premier to currently occupy the Tory backbenches.

Her well-timed interventions have real impact and gravitas and she provides an important counterbalance to the Johnson/Sunak dynamic.

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