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15 March 2024updated 20 Mar 2024 9:13am

Tory MPs are losing patience with Rishi Sunak

The Prime Minister’s decision to rule out a May election has given rebels more time to channel their despair into action.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If Rishi Sunak thought that ruling out a general election on 2 May would help soothe his fractious party, he will be sorely disappointed.

Few people genuinely believed a May election was likely (though it suited Labour to talk it up). Sunak himself had essentially already ruled one out, telling reporters on 4 January that his “working assumption” was that an election would be held in the second half of this year. At the time, I wrote that this decision seemed both obvious and inevitable: “as long as the Tories continue to trail Labour in the polls by around 18 points, Sunak is not going to gamble on an election he seems almost certain to lose”.

Since then, much has happened but the only thing to have changed for the Tories is that the situation looks even worse. They have suffered two heavy by-election defeats – in Wellingborough and Kingswood – and are facing a third in Blackpool South. Lee Anderson has resigned as deputy chair, had the whip suspended and become Reform’s first MP. Jeremy Hunt has announced another £10bn cut in National Insurance to no political benefit. The party’s largest donor, Frank Hester, has been embroiled in a racism row (with the Tories refusing to return the £10m he gave them). Oh, and Conservative support has fallen to its lowest level since Liz Truss was prime minister.

The calculation now is the same as the calculation Sunak made at the start of the year. Of course, all things being equal, he would prefer to go to the country in May and look “decisive” by calling an election on his own terms rather than waiting. But all things are not equal… and if he waits something might just turn up. 

The difference is that Conservative MPs are beginning to lose patience. They are facing a different calculation to Sunak. Being prime minister is binary: you either are or you aren’t. No one expects Sunak to attempt to lead the party after an election defeat (few expect him to even remain in frontline politics – it’s a running joke in Westminster that the PM has a LinkedIn alert for lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley). The longer he remains in No 10, the longer he can keep alive the hope, however faint, of a Conservative recovery (and, a cynic might argue, the better his CV looks). A bad defeat in May is less appealing than a worse one in October or November (or, whisper it, December or January).

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For some Tory MPs, especially those in marginal seats (or in formerly “safe” ones), that logic is disastrous. If the Tories’ ratings continue their downward trend, the difference between May and November could cost them their jobs. Even for MPs in safe seats looking to rebuild the party after the election, the scale of the potential challenge is growing. Opposition with 250 MPs is a very different prospect to opposition with 50.

“The party has divided into three camps: ultra-loyalists, fatalists who have given up and a large number of people saying ‘wait and see’,” one MP explained to me. Sunak loyalists point out that the economy is growing once more (albeit at a glacial rate) and that inflation is falling – soon, they insist, voters will start to feel the extra cash in their pockets and give Sunak some credit. The government hopes that the first asylum flight to Rwanda will take off by the end of May, handing it a political victory. And voters, according to this narrative, will feel more positive after a summer during which politics quietens down.

For the fatalist and the wait-and-see camps, this attitude is “delusional”, bordering on insulting. This matters less for the fatalists, who have essentially checked out – literally, in an increasing number of cases. This morning, armed forces minister James Heappey brought the number of Conservative MPs who have said they won’t stand at the next election to 62. Yesterday, it was former party chair Brandon Lewis who announced he was standing down. Last week, Theresa May and former London minister Paul Scully. You get the idea.

The third camp is the one that Sunak has to worry about. “The wait-and-see group have really moved in the last week,” the MP continued. “More and more now recognise that first, this is going to end in disaster, and second, regardless of who might be their preferred choice, all of the possible alternative leaders who could emerge would give us a better chance of saving the party.”

Could we really see yet another leadership challenge – or even prime minister – before the next election? It still seems unlikely: however despondent Tory MPs are feeling, only two have called publicly for Sunak to go, and those agitating privately for his removal remain a minority. (It would take 52 letters of no confidence – 15 per cent of MPs – to trigger a confidence vote and then 175 MPs in total to oust him.) But it does feel that something has snapped this week. Anderson’s move to Reform, Downing Street’s botched response to the Hester scandal, internal divisions over Michael Gove’s new definition of extremism and more apocalyptic polling have all intensified the sense that this is a government in free fall.

Sunak’s confirmation that the pain will continue, perhaps for another nine months, is driving Tory MPs to despair. The longer this slow trudge towards defeat is drawn out, the more desperate they will get – and the more time they have to channel that desperation into action.

[See also: Abolishing National Insurance is a great idea]

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