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Rebel Plot To Oust Rishi Sunak Fizzles Out Despite Ominous Local Election Results

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak looks all but guaranteed to lead the Tories into the next election (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak is expected to avoid a Tory rebel bid to oust him as party leader and Prime Minister despite an ominous picture emerging from Thursday's local elections.

Plotters who for weeks have hoped and briefed that a dire set of results on 2 May would be enough to turn the parliamentary party against Sunak appear to have admitted defeat. It means he is all but guaranteed to lead the Tories into the next general election.

With more results to be announced this weekend, the Conservatives look set to lose over 500 council seats across the country, which is nearly half of the seats the party is contesting.

At the Blackpool South by-election, an enormous 26-point swing to Labour — the third biggest swing from the Conservatives to Labour in history — further crystallised the size of the hole which Sunak's beleaguered party finds itself in as the next general election approaches. 

The scale of the losses so far appears to corrobarate the Labour Party's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls, and suggest that Keir Starmer's party remains on course to win the next general election, which the Prime Minister must call this calendar year.

"The Tories are still in as much trouble as they were a year ago," elections guru Sir John Curtice said on Friday. He added that the ruling Tory party, which according to the most recent Sky News opinion poll tracker is 21 per cent behind Labour on average, was at risk of suffering its worst set of local election results in around four decades.

Labour also celebrated a victory in Sunak's "backyard" when  David Skaith was elected the first mayor of York and North Yorkshire — a region which contains the Prime Minister's parliamentary constituency and other traditionally Conservative-voting seats.

But while the outlook facing the Conservative party is grim, numerous Tories who spoke to PoliticsHome yesterday agreed that it had seemingly failed to generate sufficient momentum for a serious move to replace Sunak — despite hopes among a handful of rebels that a bruising set of local election results would convert other Conservative MPs to their cause. 

Andrea Jenkyns, who is one of the Prime Minister's biggest critics on the Conservative back benches, and has already submitted a letter of no confidence in him, was quick to concede yesterday it was "unlikely" that other Tory MPs would write to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, to push for a change of leadership. "I’m not sure that colleagues are going to be putting the letters in, so we’re working with what we’ve got," she said. Just over 50 Tory MPs would need to send letters to Brady to formally trigger a confidence vote.

In the days leading up to Thursday's votes, a growing number of Conservative MPs argued that victory for Tory mayors Ben Houchen and Andy Street in the Tees Valley and West Midlands respectively would certainly secure the Prime Minister's position.

Last week, PoliticsHome reported quiet confidence among Sunak's allies that he would be safe barring a nightmare Tory scenario of the high-profile pair being voted out. 

In the end, that is what appears to have played out. 

It was announced on Friday that Houchen had secured a third term in office (albeit with a significantly reduced majorit compared with the 2021 vote), and Conservative party figures are hopeful that Street will get over the line in his "neck and neck" fight against Labour candidate Richard Parker. That result is expected to be confirmed on Saturday afternoon.

"If Andy Street holds then the Prime Minister is in the clear," said a former Cabinet minister.

Another ex-secretary of state agreed, telling PoliticsHome: "If we hold both Tees Valley and West Midlands, then the Prime Minister won’t be challenged."

On Thursday, some Tories were hopeful that Sunak may receive an unlikely boost in the form of a victory for Conservative candidate Susan Hall in the London mayoral contest. Some recent polling has put the Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan far ahead of his Tory challenger, but the London Mayor's allies have repeatedly stresed that the race is actually much closer.

The plot to oust Sunak fizzling out means the Prime Minister will almost certainly lead his party into the next general election. The PM favours going to the polls in the Autumn, hoping that by that point voters will feel the positive effects of falling inflation, but a Summer vote is also being considered in 10 Downing Street, PoliticsHome understands.

Despite fervered speculation in recent days and weeks that Sunak will call an election in the coming weeks, he is currently expected to hold out until the back end of the year.

Setting out the case for holding out, one former No 10 adviser told PoliticsHome: “Even if your house has lost a lot of its value, the loss isn't locked in until you sell it”.

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