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Could disgruntled Tories really topple Rishi Sunak?

Boris Johnson’s allies are openly blaming No 10 for losses in the local elections – but yet another leadership race could prove disastrous.

By Zoë Grünewald

It’s been over a week since many parts of England voted in the local elections on 4 May. Though the celebrations and bank holiday joy of the King’s coronation shielded Rishi Sunak from the initial fallout, the Conservative Party is now embarking upon a campaign of finger-pointing as it attempts to reconvene and bolster its electoral chances. 

On Saturday 13 May, Tory colleagues gathered at the first conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation – a group within the Conservative Party that claims to speak for its grassroots members and is broadly aligned with Boris Johnson. At the event in Bournemouth, the former home secretary Priti Patel declared that the current Tory leadership was “overseeing the managed decline” of the Conservative Party, while others whispered that the restoration of Johnson could revive its electoral fortunes.

This week, Sunak will be delighted to see yet more pressure heaped on him at the three-day National Conservatism Conference, which begins on Monday 15 May in London, where the right of the party will again assemble to make the case for a rightward policy swerve. Expect more not-so-thinly-veiled digs at his leadership as the party continues to splinter.

Then there is the prospect of a Tory rebellion over the government’s U-turn on the Retained EU Law Bill. Since the announcement of No 10’s new direction, many on the right of the party have begun to openly voice their frustrations with Sunak’s broken promise – which he made during his party leadership campaign last summer – to revoke thousands of EU laws that are still on the statute book. There is talk that a sizeable number of Brexiteers are planning to rebel against the amended bill when it comes back to the Commons.

Would it really be wise for the Tories to replace their leader for a third time in the space of the year? Leadership contests are by their nature public displays of in-fighting, and often involve airing a considerable amount of dirty laundry. The public is already frustrated by the instability of the last year. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has hardly held back on Sunak’s handling of the Retained EU Law Bill, warned the Conservative Democratic Organisation conference against a move to change the party leader again.

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Sunak will be hoping to drown out the noise and let his competence speak for itself. His supporters are clinging tightly to his five pledges and are asking both the electorate and the party to trust him to deliver on them. But with inflation barely budging and NHS waiting times hitting a record high, their case is wearing thin.

As Tory colleagues look to their future, many are asking existential questions about the shape of British conservatism, and what sort of party they wish to be part of.

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This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: The “blob” strikes back]