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7 February 2023

How Rishi Sunak could be out by the end of the year

If the local elections go badly and the Prime Minister fails to impress, Tory MPs may take revenge.

By Freddie Hayward

Picture this. Throughout February, a coterie of Tory MPs keeps popping up with their calls for tax cuts. At the start of March, Liz Truss delivers an unflinching speech in parliament that calls on the government to forge a new path for Britain. A few op-eds from rebels here, a speech or two there. The front page of the Telegraph continues to rotate between Keir Starmer, Truss and Boris Johnson. Rishi Sunak hardly gets a look in.

At the Budget on 15 March Jeremy Hunt fudges a tax cut, raising fuel duty but less than expected. He turns to face down his backbenches with an unconvincing grimace. “The biggest tax cut we can deliver is cutting inflation!” he says. Anonymous comments from disappointed MPs flood the papers (and Morning Call, don’t worry) the next day. The Sunak/Hunt duet pleases no one.

Most MPs want to give the Prime Minister a chance, but they can’t look away from the polls. Their fears are realised when the Conservatives are thrashed in the local elections.

The party conference now beckons and the pressure on Sunak to do something grows. He delivers a banal speech and MPs grow restless. Their heads turn. Johnson survives the investigation by the privileges committee into whether he misled parliament over partygate. With Liz Truss unrepentant about her disastrous leadership, Johnson looks measured and accomplished by comparison. The former party chairman Jake Berry leads the charge to put him in the top job in time for the next general election. Sunak suffers a defeat in the Commons (over plans to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, say) and he’s forced out by Christmas.

On the bright side

Or perhaps it could go like this. Given a helping hand by better than expected local election results (the Tories did do very badly in the last set of these elections so the bar is low) Sunak’s spin doctors convince Tory MPs that Labour’s lead is surmountable. The Bank of England predicts that inflation will halve by 2024 (though not because of anything the government can do, mind). There is anaemic economic growth, but growth no less. NHS waiting lists fall from the heights of two years to the luxuries of one. The polls turn.

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Sunak heads to the Tory conference fresh from unexpectedly uniting his party around a bill clamping down on illegal immigration. “Inflation: DOWN. NHS waiting lists: DOWN. Economic growth: UP,” he booms. Cue ovation. Sunak toasts the New Year happily ensconced in No 10.

This is all speculation, but a hundred days into Sunak’s leadership there are murmurings of rebellion. It’s still too far off to see clearly. When I asked a source on the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers yesterday about reports the committee is considering a vote of no confidence in Sunak after the local elections, they said: “No, that hasn’t been discussed at all.” But the raising of the possibility shows what machinations are going on behind the scenes.

Illogical conclusions

Here are three points to keep in mind. First, the decision ultimately falls to Conservative MPs. The 1922 Committee will not allow a vote of confidence, or any mechanism to remove Sunak, unless a majority want him gone. We are nowhere near that yet.

Second, MPs may not act rationally. You might think removing a third PM in less than a year would make their chances of re-election even less likely, but as one frustrated MP put it to me last week: “Yes, removing Sunak would not be logical but this isn’t a logical situation.”

Third, you need an alternative. I think Johnson is likely to be the leading candidate and he would struggle to get enough MPs to form a government. Look out for where other contenders (Kemi Badenoch, for instance) are moved in today’s ministerial reshuffle.

This rebellion remains disorganised, and disunity in the party makes it even less likely that Sunak can recover in the polls. That, ultimately, is the biggest threat to his position.

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

[See also: Is any Tory capable of feeling shame?]

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