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The Tories are doomed but Rishi Sunak is safe

Even the Prime Minister’s biggest opponents recognise that a change of leader will not save the Conservatives.

By David Gauke

These are a set of election results that take their time. Mayoral results that may or may not turn out to be eye-catching will not be announced until Saturday, by which time all right-minded people will be focused upon whether Ipswich Town will have returned to the Premier League after a 22-year absence.

At this stage, however, two conclusions can be drawn. The first is that the Conservatives have had a very bad time. The second, and this is a little more tentative, is that – notwithstanding the first conclusion – the Tory plotters are not going to force out Rishi Sunak.

We should start with the Tory performance. Bad council election results were priced in but losing half the seats they were defending was at the upper end of expectations. These were often seats won in 2021, when the Conservatives were benefiting from the vaccine bounce, but even compared with the dismal performance of 2023 the Tories appear to be going backwards.

The Blackpool South by-election result was also grim for the Tories. The circumstances were difficult (the Tory MP resigning in disgrace) and the turnout low, but the result involved yet another huge 26.3 per cent swing (the third largest in history) against the Conservatives. At least they held on to second place – just – against Reform UK. This was Reform’s best by-election performance but, given the circumstances and the nature of the constituency, the party might have hoped to do better.

There will be relief that Ben Houchen has held on in Tees Valley reasonably comfortably and there is optimism for Andy Street in the West Midlands. London might be closer than expected given the weakness of the Tory candidate. If only, they should be thinking, they had persuaded a stronger candidate, such as Justine Greening, to run.

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But mayoral elections should not provide much comfort. Evidently, people’s votes in mayoral elections are determined much more by individuals than by party. A general election will be different.

Truth be told, the best way to judge public opinion is to look at the opinion polls, not by-elections or local elections. Occasionally, polls can be wrong and these elections might give us a clue as to where this is the case (Reform’s ratings, for instance). But broadly these elections tell us the same story as the polls. The Tories are very unpopular, Labour is the beneficiary and a large Labour majority is on the cards.

The second conclusion is that the Tory rebels are not about to launch a coup. I wrote recently that there was plenty of concern in Downing Street that the post-election period was one of danger for Rishi Sunak. This resulted in a flurry of policy activity (welfare reform, defence spending, the Rwanda plan) and talk of an early election if there was the prospect of a no-confidence vote.

There will be considerable relief that Andrea Jenkyns, one of just two MPs to have called for Sunak to go (the other being Simon Clarke), appears to have given up on that objective, saying it is “unlikely that Tory MPs are going to put letters in”. Another Sunak critic, Nadine Dorries (now outside parliament) has said that it would be “madness” to replace him at this stage. 

Where does this leave us? Not all the votes have been counted but, at this stage, nothing has changed. Assuming he wants to (and I assume he does), Sunak will lead the Tories into the next election. He will probably wait until the autumn in the hope that something will turn up. It almost certainly will not. And then Labour will win big. If you want drama and excitement this weekend, watch the football.

[See also: Ireland can’t blame its anti-immigrant problem on Rishi Sunak]

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