Tory rebels expecting election drubbing deliver new agenda for Rishi Sunak

Results of Thursday's local elections critical to British Prime Minister's future, with MPs saying Penny Mordaunt could replace him

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits a DHL depot in Essex, where he told workers he was concerned by the rise in younger people 'trapped on benefits'. Getty Images
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Rishi Sunak has entered the most challenging week of his political career as plans to unseat him gather momentum with the UK's local elections on Thursday the trigger for a possible leadership contest.

As remarkable as it seems following the recent history of upheaval in Conservative Party politics, yet another prime minister could be removed from office.

Mr Sunak’s future hangs on how badly his party does on Thursday, with a number of his MPs from both the centre and the right telling The National that they view Penny Mordaunt as the leader who will save them from catastrophe in the general election later this year.

One MP suggested that the Leader of the Commons, a cabinet post, had already planned a “four month grid” of policy announcements to overturn the Tories' mountainous 20-point polling deficit.

However, a Conservative official told The National the current feverish atmosphere in parliament over a leadership challenge was “just symptomatic of what happens to parties when they're about to die, they just keep changing their leaders”.

The rebels have set out a five-point plan they believe will immediately improve the party's fortunes: cutting legal migration further with tighter limits on foreign students; making an offer that would bring the doctors' pay dispute to an end; pledging to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP within three years; increasing jail capacity and putting prolific offenders inside them; and cutting the benefits bill.

Today, Mr Sunak tried to tackle the last on that list by suggesting people suffering from depression or anxiety could lose access to sickness benefits as part of the Government’s major welfare reforms.

Jenrick rebellion

A key leader among a growing rebellious faction is the former cabinet minister Robert Jenrick, who exerts considerable influence over fellow Tories.

He quit as immigration minister last year, saying Mr Sunak’s Rwanda deportation plans did not go far enough.

Despite the Rwanda bill passing through parliament last week, he suggested the law would “shortly join the graveyard of policies that haven’t re-established” Britain’s borders, despite Brexit.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph he eviscerated the government’s approach to legal migration which in the last year has seen 1.2 million arrive compared to 30,000 illegally on small boat crossings.

In a tilt at Mr Sunak he stated that “politicians deliberately broke” promises made on immigration “by liberalising our system”.

While his words will carry weight among the Tories' right wing, a new report suggests immigration is more broadly welcomed by the British public.

The UK population was found to have some of the most positive attitudes to immigration, with the country ranked at the top of an international league table with 68 per cent stating migrants were welcome if there were jobs available, according to a World Values Survey poll.

Looking at the Conservative implosion across the political aisle, the veteran Labour MP Jon Cruddas told The National that “paradoxically, by the end of the week, Sunak might have bought himself a bit more time” with election results not being entirely catastrophic and the plotters’ nerves failing.

“He might then have finally seen off the last challenge to his leadership and we’ll be heading to an October or November election, so strangely enough, things might settle down in the Tory ranks”.

He added that the right wing had “cried wolf” too many times on a leadership challenge and had “anyway literally run out of road for candidates”.

“There’s little cohesion about them and almost a resignation that they don’t have the energy for a putsch,” he added.

What happens next?

If that attitude is reflected in Thursday’s polling Mr Sunak’s huge expenditure of political capital on Rwanda will look frivolous, but it could also accelerate events.

Political scientists at the London School of Economics have told The National that any loss of more than 550 local council seats could make the Tories change leader.

The next step over the weekend would be for letters of no confidence submitted to the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs reaching the 53 required for a vote on Mr Sunak’s leadership. The current number of letters apparently stands in the low 20s.

“A lot will now depend on how well or badly we do on Thursday and if we do badly, then it’s fairly certain more letters will go in,” a right-wing MP said.

“The view that a lot of colleagues may well take is that we couldn't get any worse than this so why not try someone different who may shift the dial?”

Conservative leadership votes proved fatal for former leaders Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, even if they have won them, and Mr Sunak would require at least 200 votes from the 345 Tory MPs to remain in Downing Street.

Penny for PM

If he received under 200 it would probably be fatal for his leadership, with many MPs now seeing Ms Mordaunt as their saviour.

“She's got a campaign team already organised and a grid prepared for what happens over the next four months after she becomes leader, so she’s ready to go,” said the right-wing MP.

“And Penny would be a dynamic leader, she’s popular and a good Commons’ performer.”

Another MP from the centre of the party agreed that “Penny is popular across the board”, looks good on camera and “has a strong sense of gravitas that we feel politics has lost”.

However, the politician warned that Ms Mordaunt was “ruthless” and had some strong right-wing views.

A key indicator that the plotters will move will come if the Tories suffer the “massive blow” of Ben Houchen, a long-standing Conservative mayor for north-east England, being voted out of office. Polls show that the vote will be close.

Ms Mordaunt has also gone on record saying she fully backs the Prime Minister.

Updated: May 01, 2024, 12:28 PM