The plot to bring down Rishi Sunak has become a spectacle. The stories in the papers are matched by rumours bouncing around Westminster. Who are the rebels? How many are there? Which Tory donors paid for the Telegraph/YouGov poll that predicted an electoral massacre? At the very least, Westminster’s obsession with intrigue will ensure that we are stuck with this story for a while.
But that does not mean it will be a success. Boris Johnson’s downfall taught us that defenestrations require momentum. The momentum behind this rebellion petered out when no one came forward to support former cabinet minister Simon Clarke after he called for Sunak’s resignation. In fact, numerous colleagues condemned Clarke for threatening the unity of the party, mocking the idea that the public would countenance a fourth Tory prime minister in a single parliament. The absence of support for Clarke pointed to the poor organisation and phantom-like nature of the plotters. Tory MPs won’t sacrifice themselves for a group that lacks basic political nous.
But the rebels are reportedly undeterred. The plan is to ratchet up the pressure over the coming months. The tipping points could be the two by-elections in Tory-held Kingswood and Wellingborough on the 15 February followed by the local elections on 2 May. Catastrophic losses, the scenario runs, would amplify the rebels’ argument that Sunak is leading the party into possible extinction. It’s a war of attrition, then.
Their argument will be simple: we have to do something. The rebels face the tricky task of convincing their colleagues that deposing Sunak will make their constituents more likely to vote for them. The problem is that voters resent the Conservative Party as much as they dislike Sunak. A change of leader won’t awaken the country’s latent desire for a Conservative Party with a new leader. Rishi Sunak is the new leader.
There are already signs Tory MPs are moving against the plotters. While the 1922 committee considered changing the rules to help the rebels oust Johnson, this time backbenchers are reportedly planning to increase the threshold for the numbers of letters required to trigger a confidence vote. At the moment, it looks unlikely that the rebels can muster the necessary 53 letters (15 per cent of Tory MPs), let alone the proposed 172.
Back in summer 2022, when Johnson fell, Tory MPs still thought they could win the election. It was therefore worth ousting him to ensure they kept their seats. But few Tory MPs see a path to victory now; many have made plans for their lives outside Westminster. When I asked one Tory MP what they thought of the coup, they replied: “What coup?” The greatest obstacle the rebels now face is not directing their colleagues’ anger at the Prime Minister, it is something more mundane: apathy.
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