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Artillery Row

The first rule of Plot Club is…

The Tories are absolutely, definitely, certainly not scheming to replace Rishi Sunak

 “This was something that happened five years ago.” Kemi Badenoch, who last week became the first minister to say that Conservative Party donor Frank Hester’s comments about Diane Abbott were racist, spent Monday morning explaining that this didn’t make him the sort of chap who shouldn’t be allowed to write more cheques to the Tory Party. 

She was right of course. It’s hard to recall what our attitudes were like in, um, 2019, but you have to remember that it was a very different time. You couldn’t turn on the telly without people making jokes about shooting black women.

If you’re wondering why the Tories might feel they need all the money they can get in this election year, the answer came watching Rishi Sunak addressing business owners in Warwickshire later that morning.

 It’s not that he was terrible (though someone should have advised him against personalising things by saying that he hoped his daughters would be able to find seed capital for their entrepreneurial ambitions — one senses this won’t be a huge problem). It’s more that this was the limit of his comfort zone: talking to people who were happy to be there and weren’t going to challenge him. At some point Sunak took being good at that sort of event as a sign that he should have higher ambitions, and now he has been promoted to his level of incompetence. 

Even the people around him seem to have accepted this. The latest Downing Street line is that if anyone tries to remove Sunak, he’ll call an election. It’s certainly a potent threat: you wouldn’t, after all, want him leading you into one. 

Or take Ben Wallace, lately defence secretary. “Rishi Sunak is the Prime Minister,” he told Times Radio. “Whether colleagues are happy with him or not, it’s too late.” It was not so much a rallying cry to the troops as the kind of thing the doctor says after they’ve checked you’re sitting down. 

“There comes a moment,” he went on, “where you effectively put on your best suit, you stand up and you march towards the sound of the guns and you get on with it.” Wallace’s view of how this is likely to end can be determined from the fact that he’s personally decided to put his best suit on and try and find a job somewhere else.

The first rule of Plot Club is that you cannot speak on the record about Plot Club

Could Sunak, even at this late stage, even despite Wallace’s ringing endorsement, be replaced? The first rule of Plot Club is that you cannot speak on the record about Plot Club. So Penny Mordaunt, one mooted alternative, told a group of people described only as “pals” that she was unable to publicly deny her involvement, because this would only “add fuel to the fire”. Unfortunately for her, these pals immediately repeated this to The Sun, thus achieving the precise opposite of what Mordaunt wanted.

The second rule of Plot Club is that if forced onto the record, you deny Plot Club’s very existence. So to Badenoch, the preferred leadership candidate of those who want to see Downing Street starting vicious fights with all enemies, real and imaginary. “It is actually very easy for one or two people out of 350 to talk to the papers and generate news headlines,” she told LBC in the tone of someone with some experience. “The facts are,” she went on, “that the party works very well together.” There’s something about the relaxed confidence with which Badenoch can assert that up is down which evokes Michael Gove on his best days.

The conversation turned to Hester, the Tory party’s largest backer. A week ago Badenoch had managed (purely accidentally, of course) to make Sunak look weak and indecisive by calling Hester out. Surely she now agreed the party shouldn’t accept money from him? 

“I’m actually quite surprised that people suggest this,” Badenoch replied, effortlessly affecting bafflement at the very idea. It was, she explained, time to give the fight for racial justice a rest. “We need to get to a point,” she said, “where we stop chasing people around and looking everywhere for racism.” And what better place could there be to stop looking than in the Conservative high-value donors club?

Not, to be clear, that this had anything to do with the reported seven-figure Hester donation that is still being processed. “This endless churning around of exactly when and how much is a distraction,” she told the BBC, in a bored tone designed to convey the sense that we have all of us had millions of pounds working their way through our bank accounts in ways we couldn’t really explain. It was just “a donation here or there.” 

Anyway, we needed to move on. “That was a week ago. I’m surprised you’re still talking about it.” You have to remember that 12 March was a very different time.

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