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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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The Penny Has Dropped For Many Tory MPs After A "Bleak" Week

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaving 10 Downing Street (Alamy)

5 min read

Many Conservative MPs will remember this "bleak" week as the moment when they truly gave up any hope of avoiding defeat to Labour at the next general election.

“Something has changed for me this week," said one veteran Conservative MP.

Up until very recently, the senior Tory back bencher had still harboured a small degree of hope that there remained a path to victory at the next general election for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his beleaguered party, albeit a very narrow and steep one.

Speaking to PoliticsHome heading into this weekend, however, in a conversation which they described as "therapy", this Conservative MP conceded that it was in the last few days when any remaining optimism had been totally extinguished. 

“We have done absolutely everything possible to lose the next election," they said.

"We've gone nuclear.”

The MP explained that no single event or issue had driven them to this point. Not the former deputy chairman of the Tory party Lee Anderson defecting to Reform on Monday. Nor the Frank Hester race row and Downing Street's bungled response.

There was palpable anger and incredulity among Conservative MPs over No 10's initial refusal to call the major party donor's 2019 remarks about Diane Abbott MP racist. There was fury that Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride, who is a liked and respected figure within the parliamentary Tory party, was asked to repeat that line on the Tuesday morning media around, before it was torn up by Downing Street just hours later. 

Nor was it the frustration shared by many Tory MPs that once again, a major fiscal event delivered by Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in the form of last week's Spring Budget, was seemingly showing no signs of having moved the dial in a positive direction. A Survation poll published on Friday put the Tories nineteen per cent behind Labour, with their vote share having fallen three per cent to twenty six.

Instead, they said, it was an accumulation of all of the above, plus many weeks and months of dire opinion polling, ominous by-election results and Tory party scandal and chaos.

They are not alone. This week, described as "bleak" by another senior Tory, was the one when, for many Conservative MPs, the penny properly dropped.

"The polls aren’t changing and it's not clear what would change them. As you get nearer to the end, the outcome becomes clearer," one former minister told PoliticsHome.

Any Conservative back bencher looking for a pick up would have done well to avoid an evening briefing hosted by polling company JL Partners on Thursday evening.

It was at this presentation in Westminster where a new pair of word clouds, put together using responses to surveys carried out last weekend, further illustrated the massive hole Sunak finds himself in when it comes to public perception of his own leadership.

Among all respondents and those who voted for Conservatives at the 2019 general election, the word most commonly used to describe the Prime Minister was "weak". According to JL Partners co-founder James Johnson, who previously was head of polling in former prime minister Theresa May's No 10, it is a "devastating" place for Sunak to be on election year.

Another complaint among Tories in Westminster is that the Government's legislative agenda — or lack thereof, as they see it — is giving them little to talk about to distract from the negative headlines, and creating what is widely being described as a vacuum. 

Analysis by the FT published this week found that at seven hours and nine minutes, the average working day for an MP in this parliamentary session, which started in November, is the shortest it has been at any point since Labour's general election victory in 1997.

This vacuum is seen as partly why speculation about a May general election has been so fevered and persistent, despite the majority of the evidence and most reasonable arguments pointing to the Prime Minister going to the polls much later in the year. The rumour mill cranked up again this week, with one MP telling PoliticsHome their ears pricked up when a trade envoy trip to Asia that was pencilled in for next week was cancelled.

The speculation was so rife that No 10 felt compelled to take further steps to kill it, with Sunak on Thursday explicitly telling ITV West Country that there would not be a general election on 2 May when parts of the country will partake in local and mayoral elections.

For some of the more despondent Conservative MPs, who privately admit they would prefer to be put out of their misery sooner rather than later, it is more a case of willing a Spring general election rather than actually believing that Sunak will go for it. 

As one put it: “We need to rip the plaster off now because it is only going to get worse. It’s going to be an ever-increasing narrative of shit.” 

Meanwhile, former Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis and James Heappey, the current armed forces minister, on Friday added their names to the list of Tory MPs who will not contest the next general election. It takes the growing total to sixty two —  which is firmly on course to surpass the tally in the run-up to Labour's landslide general election victory in 1997.

Also speaking at the JL Partners event on Thursday evening was Will Dry — the former No 10 pollster who resigned from the Sunak operation in January warning that the Conservative party was heading "for the most almighty of defeats" at the next geneal election. He is now supporting an effort to replace Sunak as Tory leader before polling day arrives, but refused to be drawn on that what exactly he is up to when asked by a number of journalists. 

Dry said Keir Starmer's Labour was currently on course for a "pretty handsome majority", adding that it is "pretty difficult at the moment to be optimistic if you’re a Conservative".

This week was when a number of Conservative MPs started to truly agree with him.

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