Fri, 19 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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Rishi Sunak Is Safe For Now But "Chaos" Lurks Around The Corner

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving Downing Street (Alamy)

4 min read

MPs might be absent from Parliament during its three-week recess but questions over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's position — and whether he will be able to hold out for an autumn general election — have not gone away.

The days and weeks leading up to recess were a torrid time for the Prime Minister, who continues in his attempts to fight off fresh criticism of his operation on an almost weekly basis. The Frank Hester race row, and what one Downing Street insider recently admitted was a bungled No 10 response to the Tory donor's racist remarks about opposition MP Diane Abbott, marked the latest.

Tories had hoped that a second National Insurance cut in the Spring Budget might win them some favour, but in the end it appeared to fall flat with voters, fuelling further backbench restlessness. 

For months Sunak allies have insisted the gap between the Conservatives and Labour – which continues to enjoy double-digit leads – would narrow, but in reality, the opposite has happened. 

On Monday, a new Redfield & Wilton poll put Labour 24 per cent ahead. If replicated at the next general election, which must be called before the end of this year, this would mean a heavy defeat for the current governing party and a large majority for Keir Starmer.

Constant Tory woes have been accompanied by regular calls from more radical wings of the party to roll the dice on selecting a new leader rather than go into the election with a doomed Sunak at the party's helm.

But as things stand, the number of Conservative MPs who want to replace Sunak with the party's fourth leader and the country's fourth prime minister since 2019 remains very small. While many backbenchers feel dejected and pessimistic about their electoral prospects, the vast majority of them believe that another leadership contest would only worsen the Conservative party's image in the eyes of the public.

PoliticsHome understands there is no sense that the number of letters to the 1922 Committee of Backbench Conservative MPs needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in Sunak is close to being reached. 

At least for now. Tory rebels who are pushing to replace Sunak see the next month's local elections as the biggest opportunity they have left to convince other Conservative MPs to join them.

"Chaos post-2 May is under-priced," one of the rebels told PoliticsHome.

The May local elections risk being an extremely bruising affair for Sunak, with his party currently expected to lose hundreds of council seats nationwide. There is also growing concern among Conservatives that Andy Street and Ben Houchen, the Tory mayors in the West Midlands and Tees Valley respectively, could be at risk of being voted out of office.

Seen as the party's most prominent figures outside of Westminster, just one of them losing would represent a major scalp for Labour and a huge symbolic blow to the Conservatives.

Tory rebels hope that if the results turn out to be as bad as they fear in early May, then more Conservative MPs will be persuaded to push for a change of leadership by sending letters of no confidence to 1922 Committee chair Sir Graham Brady. Fifty-three would need to write to Brady to trigger a crunch vote on Sunak' leadership.

The threshold being met would represent a whole new level of danger for Sunak, and could play out in a number of ways.

The Prime Minister would be expected to win a confidence vote. In that scenario, Sunak would likely try to hold on until the autumn before calling a general election, with the hope that his party would rally behind him. He would do so with his authority damaged, however. 

But even if he won a confidence vote, he may decide that his party has reached the point of being ungovernable and hold a general election sooner rather than later. While it is now too late for Sunak to call an election that would align with the 2 May local vote, there has been growing talk in Westminster of the country going to the polls in July or July.

In the unlikely event of Sunak losing a confidence vote, then the Conservative party would face the surreal prospect of yet another leadership contest — the third since the last general election.

Conservative MPs, as despondent and frustrated as they seem to be, are not yet on the brink of going nuclear. But if the last few years of British politics has taught us anything, it is that things can change very, very quickly. 

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