Whatever posturing follows about the UK’s decision to rejoin Horizon – and we can expect to be told over the next few days about how Rishi Sunak’s expert negotiating secured a knockdown rate for Global Britain – two things are clear.
One, regaining access to the EU scheme that funds scientific research is a long-overdue good thing. And two, that will not stop the steady drumbeat of discontent with Sunak on the Tory backbenches and among members of his party. Actually, it will only make it louder.
First, Horizon. Before we left the EU, Britain was a net beneficiary of the scheme – we paid in £6.8bn and got back £7.2bn. Oxford, Cambridge and University College London were among the top 10 recipients of its funding. Horizon paid for at least 16,000 jobs in the sector and plugged British scientists and engineers into what their European counterparts were doing, to the benefit of all. Rejoining was a no-brainer.
But talking of no-brainers, how will this news play with Brexiteers? Before and after the referendum, they claimed Horizon didn’t matter – that a bold, liberated Britain could start its own system of research funding and drain cash and expertise away from our former partners simply by dint of being brainier than everyone else.
Indeed, only a couple of months ago, Iain Duncan Smith was telling the Daily Express: “We have a much better scientific research base than the EU and scientists and investors want to come to the UK. If we go it alone we could be a scientific superpower on our own without the EU.
“The EU is scared stiff of us sucking away scientists from them to us. That’s why they want us locked into Horizon on their terms. The fact is that the only reason anyone invested in Horizon was because the British were involved.”
This was a ludicrous outburst, typical of the magical thinking of Brexiteers. But the Tory ranks are packed with people who agree with IDS.
They voted for Brexit, for the fantasy of a disruptive Britain rewriting all the rules while the rest of the world looked on in awe. They are unlikely to look fondly on being told now to be realistic, that co-operation and quietly paying into EU schemes is the only real way forward.
And Sunak is telling them that while himself slipping underwater. The face of Penny Mordaunt as he defended his record at PMQs on Wednesday was a picture – and one that told a familiar story. An average of the last five opinion polls puts the Conservatives 17.5% behind Labour. Only 29% of Britons see Sunak as an asset to the Tories (41% disagree). Just 2% say the government is handling the collapsing concrete scandal “very well”.
A new front of discontent is opening up too. As the prime minister looks for a relaunch, his next potential PR coup is to sign a trade deal with India. But home secretary Suella Braverman and immigration minister Robert Jenrick, both to the right of Sunak, are pushing back on the idea that the agreement would come at the price of relaxing visa rules for Indians who want to come to the UK to work. Closing the door to migrants from Europe while opening up for migrants from the subcontinent? It’s another tough sell for Brexiteers.
The Express’s David Maddox suggested last week that a small number of Tory MPs had already submitted letters of no confidence in Sunak (“it just feels like we have completely lost control, the country is falling apart,” one said). Only 52 (15% of the parliamentary party) are needed to trigger a leadership contest.
The ‘betrayal’ of rejoining Horizon and Sunak’s part in the unfolding RAAC scandal are unlikely to tip the balance for now. But if the Conservatives are defeated in forthcoming by-elections in seats formerly held by Nadine Dorries and Chris Pincher, Sunak’s first anniversary as PM at the end of next month may turn into a case of one and done.