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Fri, 24 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Gloomy Tory MPs Are Already Plotting Life After Rishi Sunak

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting NHS's Addenbrooke's Hospital (Alamy)

7 min read

Conservative MPs have already begun discussing who will replace Rishi Sunak if the party loses the next election – a fate many in the parliamentary party are increasingly resigned to.

The sombre mood among backbenchers seems to have become entrenched, despite efforts by the Prime Minister to lift spirits among MPs as they stagger through the last few weeks to summer recess. 

Opinion polls show Labour's double-digit leads growing – not narrowing, as many Conservative MPs had hoped would happen by now – while the bleak economic backdrop of stubborn inflation and soaring interest rates has prompted fears that Sunak's likelihood of delivering a victory at the next general election is now even slimmer than it was just a few months ago.

"That mountain has got bigger because of the scale of the challenges that we're trying to grip, with inflation proving stickier than what we'd hoped," former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb told this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown

"There is a very anti-politics, anti-politician mood and we're at risk as the Conservative party of bearing the brunt of that in 12 months or so time," the Tory MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire added.

Crabb still hoped his party could avoid the sort of electoral "tsunami" Tony Blair unleashed on John Major’s Conservatives last time Labour knocked the Tories out of power, but conceded that a 1997-style defeat in 2024, when the next election is due, could still not be ruled out. 

"If you do look back at that period, even when the economy was moving properly in the right direction, and a lot of indicators were favourable for the Conservatives, still people decided: 'We've had enough after 18 years, we fancy a change',” he continued. 

"Once the dial moves like that – and I don't believe that we know that it has yet – you have no hope, I am afraid. That's a tsunami."

Despondent and braced for defeat, some Tory MPs are openly discussing who will replace Sunak as Tory leader in opposition if Keir Starmer does become Prime Minister.

House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, who was unsuccessful in two bids to become Conservative leader last summer, remains a popular figure among backbenchers. 

In a still-active WhatsApp group of Tory MPs set up to support her leadership campaign a year ago, called 'Even Greater', ally MPs compliment her performances at the despatch box and share flattering articles, including one by The Times columnist Alice Thomson titled 'Penny Mordaunt teaches the Tories how to behave'.

Tom Tugendhadt, the security minister, is backed by a significant number of Tory moderates and is also well-liked by Conservative MPs in the north having appeared at two consecutive Northern Research Group (NRG) conferences. But there are questions over whether he'd go for the leadership again having fallen short last year. "Does he want it?" one Tory source wondered.

House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, is the hope of many MPs from the right of the parliamentary Conservative party, having taken a hard line on small boats illegally crossing the Channel, and had pushed her Cabinet colleagues into taking tougher action to reduce net migration.

A recent spate of briefings to the press against Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is seen as a sign that potential rivals have identified him as a serious contender to replace Sunak when the next leadership contest takes place. Cleverly, whose allies argue is in the position of being liked across the party and having been loyal to different prime ministers, is the second most popular Cabinet minister among Tory party members, according to ConservativeHome's most recent survey – second only to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is not expected to be involved in the next race to become Tory leader. 

Portcullis House, where MPs have their parliamentary offices, hold meetings, and eat lunch, has recently seemed quieter than usual. Many Tories who are concerned about their majorities are prioritising time in their constituencies over Westminster. If they can’t save the party, they may as well try to save themselves.

"Constituency, constituency, constituency" is one former minister’s mantra right now.

A Tory source had also noticed “a significant shift in the mood in the Tory ranks” in recent weeks. “It feels like many MPs have just given up, preferring to spend time in their constituencies or not bothering to attend parliamentary business at all," they told PoliticsHome

A widespread feeling that there just isn't that much going on in the House of Commons at the moment, typified by a series of unusually early adjournments in recent weeks, is also leading some Conservative MPs to conclude that their time would be better spent in their constituencies trying to shore up their support amid continued dire national polling.

Also appearing on this week’s The Rundown, Mark Garnier, the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest, agreed with Crabb’s optimism that "unbelievable class act" Sunak could still turn it around for his party. But he stressed that the Prime Minister still needed to set out a "bright, optimistic vision" which goes beyond his well-worn “five pledges”, that look increasingly difficult to deliver.  

"I want to see much more than that," Garnier told PoliticsHome.

"These are issues which every government is going to have to deal with and dealing with them just demonstrates that we are competent. What Rishi has got to do is create an image which people want to subscribe to."

There was exasperation in Downing Street this week when Tory MPs in the so-called New Conservative group launched their own plan to reduce net migration, in what was seen as a direct challenge to the government's record on the sensitive issue of immigration. One ally of Sunak said the group's members, which includes Tory party vice chairman Lee Anderson, were "pissing in the wind" and hadn't taken proper steps to loop in the Prime Minister. 

Many Tory MPs in the moderate wing of the party were also irritated by the intervention, but agreed to keep their heads down to help Sunak avoid more "blue-on-blue" infighting.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and the party's Selby candidate Keir Mather

But Sunak faces the prospect of an increasingly restless parliamentary party in the months leading up to party conference in October if its fortunes don't show signs of changing soon.

A potential flash point will come later this month when voters in Yorkshire, Somerset and west London go to the polls on 20 July for three by-elections that will underline which way the wind is blowing for the party. In the autumn they’re likely to face two more once Nadine Dorries has formally resigned, and if parliament votes to accept Standards Committee sanctions against Chris Pincher. 

The Conservatives are defending a majority of over 20,000 in Selby & Ainsty in Yorkshire, in what ought to be safe even for a government suffering mid-term blues. But a dramatic JL Partners opinion poll for The Yorkshire Post on Friday put Starmer's Labour 12 points ahead, spelling what would be a disastrous result for the Prime Minister if replicated at the ballot box.

The Conservatives are also expected to lose Boris Johnson's old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to Labour, while Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats are confident of overturning another massive 'blue wall' majority in Somerset & Frome.

Speaking to PoliticsHome this week, one former secretary of state said that the level of unrest within the Conservative party might become unmanageable for Sunak between now and the end of the year, and force him into calling an early general election.

When Sunak will decide to take the plunge and call a vote remains speculative, but what isn't in doubt is that right now the Prime Minister faces an ever-more insurmountable challenge in convincing his MPs that all is not lost.

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Read the most recent article written by Adam Payne - Rishi Sunak Calls General Election For 4 July

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