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What happens if Rishi Sunak loses his seat?

Even the Prime Minister’s 27,210 majority might not be safe.

By Rachel Cunliffe

What happens if Rishi Sunak loses his seat of Richmond and Northallerton?

This should be an entirely hypothetical question. A sitting prime minister has never lost their seat in a general election – and Sunak is defending a majority of 27,210.

The New Statesman’s data expert Ben Walker has predicted Sunak will probably be safe, citing Labour’s historically weak performance in the constituency. But the polls in this election campaign have been so catastrophic for the Conservatives – in the worst case suggesting they could be reduced to just 63 seats – that we cannot rule anything out. The Tories lost the York and North Yorkshire mayoralty in Sunak’s backyard in May, and the PM was reported on Wednesday night to be “rattled” and “genuinely fearful” of losing his seat.

So if things do not go Sunak’s way at 4am, what happens?

Before the election was called, Sunak technically had three distinct jobs: Prime Minister, leader of the Conservative Party, and MP for Richmond (now called Richmond and Northallerton after boundary changes). As soon as Parliament was dissolved, he – and his 649 parliamentary colleagues – ceased to be an MP. It is entirely up to the voters in his North Yorkshire seat to decide if he returns to Parliament.

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It is up to the monarch to appoint the prime minister, so Sunak will remain in office until he goes to Buckingham Palace (presuming he loses) to formally resign on Friday morning. After that, the King will invite Keir Starmer, as the leader of the largest party in parliament, to form a government. There is a constant line of communication between the King’s private secretary and the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to ensure everything goes smoothly.

The Conservative leadership is where things get interesting. Unlike other parties (Labour, for example), the Tories do not have an elected deputy leader. Angela Rayner was chosen by party members – Oliver Dowden, the deputy PM, was not. He was appointed by Sunak.

There will, of course, be a leadership contest to replace Sunak – and various runners and riders are already angling for pole position. But that will take time to organise. Adding to the complication, the rules of the contest will be set out by the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. This gives the chair of the 1922 Committee (the “assassination bureau” that has stage-managed the exit of three Tory prime ministers in five years) a significant amount of influence – or it would, if the Committee currently had a chair. But Graham Brady is not standing for parliament again, meaning the parliamentary party will have to elect a new chair before the contest is held.

So in the immediate aftermath of this election, who would take over as interim leader?

I spoke to a number of experts – senior Conservatives, past and present CCHQ officials, party insiders – to try to find out. The answer: nobody knows.

“In the unlikely event that Sunak loses, expect to see a huge amount of confusion – the constitution just isn’t clear,” said a source close to the Conservative campaign. They added that there was no clear mechanism for a change without either a party leader or a 1922 chair, but that the priority would be holding a leadership contest as quickly as possible, with a caretaker in the interim. “Most likely, senior Tories get together and appoint somebody like Oliver Dowden to serve on a temporary basis.”

Another option for caretaker would be Richard Holden, the Tory party chairman. This might make constitutional sense, but would be a controversial choice. Holden has only been an MP since 2019 and is seen very much as Sunak’s man in CCHQ, tarnished by the Prime Minister’s failings. He angered grassroots members when he abandoned his marginal constituency of North West Durham to be parachuted into the (seemingly) safe seat of Basildon and Billericay. One CCHQ alumnus poured cold water on the idea of Holden even as an interim leader, calling it “the kind of ‘vibes-based’ power grab that could reduce the Tory tragedy to outright farce”.

Of course, if the results are so bad Sunak loses his seat, Dowden and Holden could also be in trouble. And it isn’t clear who these “senior Tories” deciding what happens would be: along with Brady, Michael Gove and Theresa May are also standing down, and many of the parliamentary party’s grandees left during the Boris Johnson era.

The most senior figure the Conservatives have is probably David Cameron. Indeed, a number of people mooted the possibility of the former PM stepping in to temporarily lead the party from the Lords. However, the Conservative Party’s constitution currently says the leader has to be a member of the Commons. Could there be some hurried tweaks to enable Cameron to lead from the Lords, or for Sunak himself to stay on?

“I don’t think there is a protocol,” said Eliot Wilson, a former House of Commons clerk and Conservative commentator. “The thing about the party’s constitution is that it’s terse. For example, it says the leader must be drawn from the MPs but not explicitly that a leader who ceases to be an MP is therefore forced to resign.” He added that this was all speculation and opinion. “My guess is that if Sunak lost his seat, which I don’t think he will, he’d remain nominal leader, someone would step up in the House for PMQs etc, the parliamentary party would elect a new chairman of the 1922 Committee and they would organise the quickest possible leadership election.”

The most likely scenario is that Sunak will keep his seat, and will remain Conservative leader while the contest to replace him gets underway. But if there is a shock result, expect an emergency summit as the remaining Conservatives try to work out what to do.

“I mean, at that point it’s chaos anyway,” I was told by a party insider. Although, they continued, “At that point we are likely not opposition, so it’s less urgent.”

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