Rishi Sunak's Mini-Honeymoon Is Over And The Tory Knives Are Out

The PM was having a decent 2023 – until the local elections sparked fresh Conservative unrest.
Rishi Sunak is coming under pressure from Tory MPs once again
Rishi Sunak is coming under pressure from Tory MPs once again
Jianan Liu/HuffPost

Rishi Sunak celebrated his 43rd birthday on Friday.

The prime minister reportedly marked the occasion by having his favourite carrot cake and dinner with his wife.

It’s safe to say, however, that there were no birthday cards for the PM from the 1,063 former Tory councillors who lost their seats at last week’s local elections.

“We’ve never had an apology or even an acknowledgement from the party for what happened,” one defeated Conservative told HuffPost UK.

“The chief executive of my council wrote to all of us who lost our seats to thank us for our service, but the prime minister can’t even be bothered to say sorry.”

A decent enough start to 2023 saw Sunak enjoy something of a delayed honeymoon period as he unveiled his five promises to voters, reached a Brexit deal with the EU and delivered the government’s long-awaited immigration plan.

He succeeded in steadying the government ship after the tumultuous Boris Johnson and Liz Truss eras while also eating into Labour’s healthy opinion poll lead.

But the worse-than-expected local election results have blown apart the uneasy truce between the prime minister and his panicking MPs.

They are once again braced for the prospect of voters passing a damning verdict on the government at next year’s general election.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t given up on the election - and rightly, as of course we’re going to lose,” one gloomy Tory observed.

The civil war within the party erupted once again on Wednesday following the PM’s decision to water down his commitment to scrap all remaining EU laws from the UK statute book by the end of the year.

Both Sunak and business secretary Kemi Badenoch, the minister responsible for delivering the new policy, were accused of betraying Brexit by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois.

Meanwhile, Red Wall MPs - whose seats are especially vulnerable to a Labour comeback - warned that the Tories face electoral defeat unless the government passes the Levelling Up Bill by the summer.

In a letter to the PM, they said the legislation - which would see billions of pounds poured into deprived communities - was needed so they could “demonstrate clearly on the doorstep what Conservative policies mean in the real world for jobs, families and local investment”.

If that were not enough to worry Sunak, two separate events will take place over the next week at which his internal opponents will set out their alternative vision for the future of the Conservatives.

The Conservative Democratic Organisation - whose members would re-instate Johnson as leader in a heartbeat - will hold a conference tomorrow for “like-minded patriots who ... want to save our party and our country”.

Speakers will include arch-Johnsonites Nadine Dorries, Lord Cruddas, Priti Patel and, inevitably, Rees-Mogg.

In a dig at Sunak, Patel will blame the Tory leadership for the local election disaster.

She will say: “While we are out there week-in week-out facing the electors, dealing with the criticism, responding to the tough questions and hearing their anger, frustration and disappointment, those in power and control in our party rarely seem to be out there meeting the people.

“A piece to camera, a highly organised visit, and taking a few questions from journalists at press conferences is no substitute for a few hours of hard graft and campaigning knocking on doors and delivering leaflets.”

And on Monday, the three-day National Conservatism Conference will kick off just a stone’s throw from Westminster.

Speakers at that event will include cabinet members Michael Gove and Suella Braverman, as well as Lord Frost, Danny Kruger and - of course - Rees-Mogg.

One organiser described it as “real ‘eyes on opposition’ stuff”, a reference to the widespread belief in Tory circles that the next election is already lost and that the party must begin plotting its return to power now.

One Conservative MP who is standing down at the next election told HuffPost UK that they had already “mentally checked out”, while another source said managing the parliamentary party was becoming increasingly difficult.

“The MPs are now all in little groups,” he said. “You have the group who have already said they’re standing down, the ones in marginal seats who are now focused entirely on saving their jobs, and all the others who are preparing for the fight for the soul of the party after the election.”

Sunak’s response to the growing turmoil in his party is to stick to the path he first set out in January.

“I have set out five very clear priorities – to halve inflation, to grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats,” the PM said on Tuesday.

“What I can tell people is we are working day and night to make their lives better.”

One former cabinet minister who backed Liz Truss over Sunak in last year’s Tory leadership election,said the party had no option but to support the PM.

“The local elections have shown a lot of colleagues just how vulnerable their seats are, but there is no alternative - Rishi is the only show in town,” they said.

But despite the security of his own position - no one is seriously talking about a Boris Johnson comeback any more - Sunak knows that he needs to quickly turn around the Tories’ fortunes or any chance of him celebrating his 45th birthday in Number 10 will disappear.


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