In the bars and tea-rooms of the House of Commons there is always gossip. So when, at times, the level of gossip diminishes, to be replaced by a proportionate increase in discrete whispering, every Westminster watcher will instantly sense that something is afoot. But what? To begin with, that is not at all easy to discern but, bit by bit, from careful observation of former gossipers newly converted to the cult of whispering, one can form enough of an insight to deduce whom one could approach to cast some light on what is going on. Then, if the watcher in question knows the right pubs and restaurants in which to make discrete enquiries of these carefully selected interlocutors, conversations will sometimes occur and from those conversations a picture may emerge …
Crisis upon crisis
What with the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis (along with the broader economic crisis), the energy and fuel crisis, the food shortage crisis, the climate crisis, the Covid crisis, the NHS crisis, the social care crisis, the industrial relations crisis, the Brexit fallout crisis, the immigration “crisis”, the dismantling of the Union crisis, the potential election wipe-out crisis, and all the other crises, it is hard to say for certain which issue is uppermost in our Prime Minister’s mind.
But his biggest problem, at this moment, is not even on that list. Let’s start with the relevant numbers:
Number number one is 760, which is the number of days between today and the last permissible date for the next UK General Election, in January 2025. An earlier date is possible but, for our purposes, let us assume that the Tories will spin out their term until the last possible moment.
Number number two is 352, which (at the time of writing) is the number of Tory MPs who have not yet served as PM. This number is subject to change for a variety of reasons such as resignations, retirements, expulsions, suspensions, defections, rebellions, by-elections, tabloid revelations, sabbaticals taken for the purpose of completely clearing names, criminal convictions, and reality TV show appearances. However, for the purposes of this article, let us assume that number number two will not change substantially in the near future.
On the face of it, numbers one and two are unrelated, but it is precisely the relationship between them, specifically the relentless diminution with each passing day, in the result of the calculation number number one divided by number number two, that has Mr Sunak’s team in a sweat. We will get into that soon, but first some history:
The premiership of David Cameron, the UK’s 53rd PM, lasted 2,255 days from 11 May 2010 to 13 July 2016.
His successor, Theresa May (PM 54) lasted 1,106 days, to 24 July 2019. Less than half as long.
PM 55 was Boris Johnson, whose period in office (including a lengthy “caretaker” interlude) was just 24 days longer than Mrs May’s ‘reign’ and barely half that of Mr Cameron.
Then came the supernova that was the 56th premiership: Liz Truss’s transition from Tory-party bright star to Tory-party black hole took just 49 days from start to finish. She would have needed another week to reach one twentieth of Mr Johnson’s stint.
The trend is one of rapidly decreasing prime ministerial terms in office, the length of the last term on the list being just over 2 per cent of the length of the first. Mr Sunak needed to survive until December 12 to equal Ms Truss… and did. (Incidentally, for better or for worse, Mrs Thatcher’s premiership spanned the whole of the 1980s and a fair bit beside: that’s getting on for three months for every day of the supernova premiership.) Will the trend continue? And, if so, what is the shortest possible term in office for a Prime Minister? In light of the Supernova episode, this is a reasonable question, and it is one that, for the reasons we are about to uncover, is among those occupying Mr Sunak’s mind.
The aftershock of the Truss episode has further unsettled the already fractious Tory backbenches, a particular bone of contention being the £115,000 a year that Truss, as a former PM, can claim (at taxpayers’ expense) in the form of a public duty cost allowance (PDCA). If Ms Truss were to live, say, to twice her current age of 47, the PDCA would be worth around £5.5 million to her over her remaining lifetime; that’s more than £110,000 for every day that she was PM. (As a comparison, a worker on the living wage would have to work 40 hours per week, 48 weeks per year, for 6 years, to earn what Ms Truss could receive for each day that she was PM.) Not that Tory backbenchers have a problem with that; quite the contrary! It’s just that they see no reason why this generous stipend should not be extended to encompass, for example, all current Tory MPs.
Mr Sunak knows full-well that without backbench support he cannot govern, and backbench support can by no means be relied upon when backbenchers are restless. What he needs above all is a united Tory party that will allow him to pass legislation. Unfortunately for him, if there’s one principle that Tory MPs can unite around, it’s that Tory MPs don’t do Party unity.
More numbers – and a plan!
After much brainstorming among Mr Sunak’s inner circle, it appears that a potential solution may have emerged. The central idea is that, between now and the next General Election, all Tory MPs who have not already held the top job will be given the opportunity to serve as ‘Prime Minister for the day’ (PM4TD), thus qualifying all 352 of them for the stipend for life. At an annual cost to the public purse of only around £40.5 million, Mr Sunak would see this as a price well worth paying to secure a compliant parliamentary party. Admittedly, it would amount to somewhere in the region of £1.5 billion over the lifetimes of this cohort of MPs, but that comes under the heading of “someone else’s problem”. Might future governments use the same trick to win the loyalty of future backbenchers? That question “falls outside the scope of this initiative”.
Soundings by the Tory Whips’ office have confirmed that this expedient could be expected to secure the loyalty of the rebellious crew. A minister has been charged with drafting a more detailed proposal.
If the plan goes ahead, the PMs4TD will become UK Prime Ministers numbers 58 to 510. PM number 1 was Robert Walpole who became PM in 1721 and held the post for 20 years and 315 days! The average term as PM has been over 5 years per PM prior to the scheme but would fall to less than 9 months per PM by its conclusion.
Would this scheme not show the Tories in a bad light? Are they really so disunited that they need a new leader every day or so? Not at all! The arrangement has in fact been designed as an opportunity “to showcase the enormous depth of talent available within the Tory parliamentary group”.
Who does what?
While in post, the PMs4TD will be expected to perform all of the stately duties of office – in full ceremonial regalia, naturally.
So, they will appear on Breakfast TV, ritually shuffling and plodding a few early-morning metres along a dark London street, every inch the statesperson in jogging-pants, vest and headband.
For the lunchtime news they will sit, resplendent in traditional bright-yellow over-garments and hardhat, at the controls of an enormous earth-moving machine, striking terror into the timid hearts of the assembled big-wigs.
By mid-afternoon, our PM4TD will have arrived at a drizzly, red-wall coastal resort for the time-honoured robing ceremony, gamely donning the magnificent (and capacious) prime-ministerial wetsuit prior to dipping a toe in the sea. The cameras duly record the moment for the early-evening TV news.
Footage on late-night current affairs programmes reveals our PM4TD in a war zone, exuding gravitas in sombre, state-of-the-art, body armour. Bemused foreign dignitaries politely enquire as to how many more British Prime Ministers will be dropping by in the coming days.
What the PMs4TD will not be doing is any governing whatsoever. An “Executive Governance Committee”, consisting of Mr Sunak and his current ministerial team, will retain responsibility for drafting and presenting all Government legislation and steering it through parliament. The PMs4TD will be expected to vote in favour of all such legislation, unquestioningly and without fail: no ‘private reservations’, no ‘personal principles’, no quibbles of any sort, no red lines and certainly no amendments! On pain of losing the party whip and, along with it, the stipend for life!
The devil is in the detail
So why is Mr Sunak so concerned? It’s those numbers again!
The first problem is that, despite the name, each PM4TD will in fact have to serve a term of more than one day. Bear in mind that, when their turn arrives, every one of them, as a minimum, will have to call at the Palace, appear outside Number 10 to make an announcement (thanking, amongst others, their predecessor for their magnificent contribution, their team and staff for their unflinching loyalty and dedication, and their family for their love and support, without which they would not be here today.)
They will need to appoint a Cabinet, outline their vision for our magnificent country, redecorate the Downing Street flat, move their stuff in, hold a celebration party (at which no rules will be broken), get some sleep, go for an early morning jog, get fitted for a high-viz jacket and hard-hat, draw up a budget, make a fleeting appearance at Parliament (if sitting), blame the pitiful state of the country on some disembodied concept with an alliterative name (the confederacy of confutation, the nexus of negativity, etc) hold a leaving party (at which no rules will be broken), and make a minimum of three foreign visits (Biden, Zelensky and one other).
Then they will need to announce their resignation, revisit the Palace, move their stuff out, and make the Downing Street resignation announcement (a mirror image of the first day’s version, but with added tears). Finally they will need to walk away from number 10 for the benefit of the cameras, making way at the rostrum for the next incumbent who will, at that very moment, be arriving back from their initial Palace visit. Recent experience tells us that It simply wouldn’t be possible for anybody to do all that in less than two days.
Twenty days to save the Tories
So let’s do the arithmetic. Number number two (the number of PMs4TD), times two days (the minimum term for each PM4TD), equals 704 days (the combined term in office of all the PM4sTD). When you then subtract that from number number one (the number of days available before an election must be called), you are left with barely two months to get the scheme up and running. However, we need to allow a month at the other end, for Mr Sunak to be reappointed as PM in time to call the election and to lead the Tories into it. So in round figures, the PM4TD scheme needs to begin early in January of 2023.
Clearly, an awful lot of work needs to be done very, very quickly. Which means that the entire enterprise is on a knife-edge. The obvious impediment to a smooth implementation is the backbench disaffection that we mentioned earlier. Probably, once the deal is in place, the 352 will toe the line: “the money should swing it,” is a phrase muttered, hopefully, by Tory whips. But the backbenchers will not sign a blank cheque. Before they commit to anything they will want to see, and approve, all legislation to be brought between now and the next general election.
In the words of one veteran figure: “Chapter and verse, no ifs, no buts. They won’t be happy until every ‘i’ is polka-dotted and every ‘t’ is double-crossed.”
But as we know, Tory backbenchers are not a homogenous group. Their chapters and verses are from different books and in different translations. That factor is problem enough in normal times, when the parliamentary arithmetic might permit a certain degree of dissent. But that is not the case here; for the scheme to work, every PM4TD must agree to everything in advance, and that presents Mr Sunak with a terrifying challenge.
The root causes of the difficulty in which he finds himself are the querulousness of the Parliamentary party and the perception that Mr Sunak himself lacks authority as well as a mandate to lead his own party. A silver and a gold in the two most recent Tory leadership races count for nothing when another race could take place at any moment. Buying backbench support with the PM4TD scheme could solve that difficulty, but brings its own headaches, chiefly the need to work around the clock over the Christmas period to get all that paperwork done, without which no deal can be done, and the party descends once more into chaos.
So, there is the answer to the question posed in the title of this article. Mr Sunak’s biggest headache at the moment is that he needs to compress the preparation phase of every bill that his government will bring forward into the days between now and the new year.
If things work out for Mr Sunak, we will (ironically) see him replaced as PM by the first of the PM4s4TD at the start of January 2023. Then he and other Tory grandees might dare to dream that, by the time of the next election, theirs will be seen as a united party, and might even make a good showing at the polls.
If things don’t work out, there will be a flurry of flat denials that any scheme of any sort was ever contemplated. Whispering in corners will decline and the overt gossip will retreat to its rightful place.
Advisory note. The above content may contain fragments of supposition, conjecture, and imagination. Nevertheless, the author wishes to assert that all factual information was effectively true at the point of invention.