Phone calls, finances and party factions: The challenges ahead for Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak promised to "earn" the nations trust as it stares down a "profound economic crisis". Credit: PA

In his address to the UK, Rishi Sunak said that he was not “daunted” by the challenges facing him as Prime Minister, but to say those challenges are daunting would be an understatement. 

Not only does he have to take steps to stabilise the economy and financial markets which have been in chaos, but he has to do that by making difficult spending decisions at a time when spiralling prices and interest rates have made day-to-day living an expensive and scary experience for so many people. 

All eyes will be on the big financial decisions due to be made over the next week and how they will affect all of us. 

But there are some other major challenges on his plate: 

  • Union of the United Kingdom

When she campaigned to become leader of the Conservative party, Liz Truss famously described herself as a “child of the union” but the union of the United Kingdom didn’t seem to figure very high on her agenda.

She said she’d “ignore” Nicola Sturgeon and remained true to her word, adding in ignoring Mark Drakeford for good measure, ending her time in Downing Street without having had a conversation with the other elected leaders of the UK. 

Rishi Sunak can only improve that relationship and those close to him expect him to do so. 

Montgomeryshire MP Craig Williams was a government aide in Sunak’s Treasury team and campaigned for him to become leader. He accompanied him to Monday’s meeting of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs.

He told me that a call to Mark Drakeford would be a high priority for the new Prime Minister. 

“Absolutely. And I suspect without even pushing that he will treat Mark Drakeford [with respect]. But we've got to remember that Rishi Sunak is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That includes Wales. So he already represents our great country as our Prime Minister.”

Anthony Pickles, former chief of staff to the Welsh Conservatives, told me that a phone call or lack of phone call is not a trivial matter. 

“You can’t be the self-proclaimed party of the union and not speak to the people that represent the nations, so the First Ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” he told me. 

“We know that devolution is always a significant part of the agenda, so it is an important relationship and it is important that you set off a new relationship on the right foot so I hope that Rishi Sunak will make one of his first phone calls to the devolved leaders.”

A better relationship doesn’t mean a cuddly relationship, however. 

During a leadership hustings debate held in Cardiff in the summer, Rishi Sunak warned that, while he would work with the Welsh Government, he would also criticise it.

"I want to help work with everyone here to deliver [its potential]” he told Welsh Conservative members, “And actually make sure that people in Wales get the public services that they deserve.

"And that's where we need to be more prepared to call out the failures of the devolved government here, because this path of onward devolution has not worked in actually delivering better health care and education for people here in Wales - and that's what we've go to fix."

  • The Conservative Party 

Conservative MPs may be breathing a sigh of relief this week and doing their best to put their differences behind them but they can expect to have their ears bent by party members.

Many of them feel aggrieved at what some have described to me as a “coup,” a take-over of the government by some of the very MPs that were rejected during the summer’s leadership campaign. 

One told me that Rishi Sunak is the “leader of MPs” not the whole party. “The utter arrogance of them thinking everything will be alright now is astounding.”

Rishi Sunak arrived to applause from Conservative MPs Credit: PA

Another pointed out the things that many still hold against the new leader: “green card, non-Dom status [for his wife, now reversed] and he knifed Boris in the front.”

Several are predicting deselections (where associations refuse to back a sitting MP for the next election) although if the polls continue to be poor the election itself could take care of that. 

One long-standing campaigner predicts that the level of unhappiness means that Rishi Sunak will be gone by Easter.

Whatever happens, the opinion polls show that this is the last roll of the dice for the Conservatives who could face massive losses unless they turn things around, something Craig Williams agrees with.

“I think it is. I've got to be honest for that question. I don't think my electorate of Montgomeryshire will forgive us if we go back to infighting. 

“They want us to deal with the energy crisis. They want to deal with the situation in Ukraine. They want to deal with these global headwinds that are driving inflation and interest rates increases. There are big issues and we've got to forget egos now and get on.”

Brecon and Radnorshire MP Fay Jones told me that she doesn’t think it’s too late for her party.

“No, I don't think so. Rishi addressed the a group of conservative members of Parliament [on Monday] in the 1922 committee, and his message was very clear that we need to unite or die. 

“We know that our enemy is in front of us, not behind us. So, no, I think the the message has been heard loud and clear. And I can I can already start to see that cohesion coming through.”

  • UK general election

Given everything, it’s no surprise that opposition parties - and some Conservatives - are calling for a UK general election to be held. 

As Labour MP for Pontypridd, Alex Davies-Jones put it to me, “I think what we've seen is a party completely ungovernable. They are so split in ideology, in ideas, in what they want going forward. 

“For the British people, the only way out of this chaos is to go directly to the British people and ask them what they want.”

A UK general election isn’t due to be held until 2024 and holding one earlier lies within the hands of the Conservatives who are the largest party in the Commons. 

Unless they become engulfed in another crisis, it’s unlikely that they’ll agree to go to the country earlier because they can read the polls as well as anyone else and won’t want to risk a wipeout. 

It won’t stop the other parties calling for one although in private some are uneasy about the calls, not just for the constitutional reasons but also because of the expense and disruption it would lead to during a cost of living crisis. 

It’s out of step with what my constituents want, one told me. 

The principle is also important and one that could cause problems for those calling for one, further down the line. 

The leader of Welsh Labour, Mark Drakeford is expected to stand down within the next two years, handing over to a successor just as Carwyn Jones and Rhodri Morgan did before him. 

The vociferous calls for a Westminster election now could come back to haunt those same Labour politicians looking for a smooth handover of power in Cardiff Bay. 

  • Reshuffle 

Predicting a reshuffle is a mug’s game. Only the prime minister and his top team know who’s in the frame for promotion or sacking and there are so many other factors which could affect those choices.

Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland's position is in doubt Credit: PA

Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland quit the cabinet on Tuesday afternoon.

A return is predicted for former Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, who has been a strong Sunak campaigner from the start. 

There’s also speculation about the return of another former Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb.

David TC Davies remained as Wales minister during the time of both Johnson and Truss. Might he remain in government?

The MPs quoted above, Craig Williams and Fay Jones have also been strong supporters of Sunak and were among those whose resignations led to the downfall of Johnson. Might they be rewarded with posts?