Rishi Sunak can’t stop the Tories’ slow-motion train wreck

LONDON — Try as he might, things just aren’t going Rishi Sunak’s way. 

On Wednesday the U.K. prime minister had his tail up. The opposition Labour Party was in crisis over poorly vetted candidates. Its poll lead was on the wobble. And the latest inflation statistics were better than many had expected.

Yet by Friday morning, Sunak had lost two seats with healthy Conservative majorities, the right-wing challenger Reform party was on the march — and Britain was officially in recession.

Labour won big in by-elections in Wellingborough and Kingswood — with the Wellingborough result, in a seat the governing party had held since since 2005, representing the second-biggest swing from the Tories to Labour in any postwar election.

The dire results and gloomy economic outlook may not pose an immediate existential threat to Sunak. But the prime minister is teetering on the brink of open Conservative rebellion and his prospects of winning this year’s general election appear bleaker by the day.

“Enough people have decided it’s time for a change,” said one former Cabinet minister, granted anonymity to speak frankly. “We’re in the territory of damage limitation now.”

By-election blues

Yet it was Labour’s Keir Starmer who started the week on the back foot, granting Sunak some rare breathing space.

Just as the opposition party sought to steady itself after watering down one of its boldest electoral pledges, all hell broke loose over offensive comments about Israel made by the Labour candidate in Rochdale. After some prevarication by Labour top brass, the candidate eventually lost the party’s backing — throwing into doubt another by-election later this month which should have been a shoo-in for Labour.

A survey by Savanta was the first to suggest that Labour, firmly in the ascendant for the past 18 months, could be slipping back in the polls.

Then came the twin defeats in Wellingborough and Kingswood.

“Last night’s results certainly suggest the big picture is that there doesn’t seem to be any sense of things changing from a series of very large swings against the Conservatives,” says Keiran Pedley, research director at pollster Ipsos. 

Sunak himself tried to put a brave face on the situation, telling reporters Friday that “mid-term by-elections are always difficult for incumbent governments.”

UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

But to describe the current phase of the election cycle as “mid-term” is generous in the extreme. Voters are expected to go to the polls later this year, and Sunak faces peril on all sides. 

He not only has to worry about Labour, but advances made by Reform. The right-wing, anti-immigration party founded by Nigel Farage gained 10.4 percentage points in Kingswood and 13 percentage points in Wellingborough. 

While the results fall short of previous highs achieved by Farage’s previous outfit, UKIP, it’s enough to make Tory strategists feel uncomfortable.

“They’ve not got double digits in by-elections before — and to do so twice in one evening is obviously good for them,” says Pedley of Ipsos. “It’s an opportunity for them to get some momentum.”

Stay of execution

Despite this double blow to the solar plexus, some Conservative MPs were sanguine about the results Friday.

MPs from various wings of the party agreed that the losses were “priced in” — and did not make any real difference to Sunak’s position.

“Tory MPs typically only move against a leader when they’ve actively made a terrible specific mistake,” observes James Frayne, founder of consultancy Public First and former Conservative adviser. “They don’t usually move to avert slow motion train wrecks, like this.”

Loyalist MPs dismissed the idea of an imminent move against Sunak, with one insisting: “We just need to knuckle down and get on with delivering.”

Sunak’s troops are drawing comfort from the fact that Labour is once again tackling internal strife, with the potential for more to come. A successful spring budget and the possibility of progress on Sunak’s long-running plan to deport refugees to Rwanda provide, some argue, two further opportunities to turn the tide. 

But that also brings huge risk if Sunak misfires. “The PM has only two more levers to pull with the budget and Rwanda,” said a Conservative MP and ex-minister. “If the budget falls flat, I would expect Simon Clarke won’t feel so lonely.”

Clarke, a member of Liz Truss’ government, publicly called for Sunak to go in an article for the Telegraph last month.

The chances of a crowd-pleasing budget stuffed with tax cuts have also dimmed with the expectation that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal “headroom” will be lower than first thought.

Sunak is teetering on the brink of open Conservative rebellion and his prospects of winning this year’s general election appear bleaker by the day | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“The only way forward is a leadership contest and straight to an early general election for confirmation,” said one restive Conservative candidate.

All the while, those who hope to succeed Sunak are on maneuvers, with the same ex-Cabinet minister commenting that he was “getting lots of invites for drinks and a chat” with ambitious colleagues.

If the trudge to the election is bleak, gloomy Conservative MPs can at least enjoy a more active social life.