Rishi Sunak’s moment of maximum danger just arrived

LONDON — Rishi Sunak is living through his most perilous hours as U.K. prime minister. 

With his Conservative Party lagging in the polls, disgruntled Tory rebels seeking to oust him as leader before this year’s general election have been waiting for their moment.

It may have just arrived — but will they strike?

Thursday’s local and regional elections across England and Wales have long been marked in rebel diaries as the moment Sunak would suffer heavy, real-world electoral losses, meaning Tory MPs might be panicked to take action.

As the initial results came in Friday morning, it was clear Sunak had suffered a bad night.

One rebel faction that has long plotted Sunak’s demise said plans had been drawn up to pounce if Tory MPs signal a lust for yet another round of regicide.

“Everything is ready, it’s all in place, it’s up to the MPs now to decide what they want to do,” said one plotter, granted anonymity — like others in this article — to speak freely about behind the scenes work.

Shedding hundreds of local councillors, as is forecast, would be a terrible result for the prime minister ahead of a general election in which he has only slim prospects of retaining power.

But conversely, Sunak could come out of the public’s kicking of his foot soldiers in a stronger position — if the rebels fail to rouse their desired coup.

No. 10 Downing Street seems confident they will be all scheme and no guillotine. 

Will MPs wield the knife?

Thanks to a highly successful bout of expectation management, Conservative MPs will be judging just how dire affairs are based on two key mayoralities, rather than the councils, most of which were last fought under Boris Johnson’s high watermark in 2021.

Businessman Andy Street is fighting hard to cling on to his role as Mayor of the West Midlands, as is Ben Houchen in Tees Valley. The regional champions have focused on their personal popularity with constituents rather than boasting links to the Tory party or Sunak, as both fare dismally in the national polls.

Ben Houchen obliterated Labour last time around, in 2021, winning with 73 percent to 27 percent. | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Houchen obliterated Labour last time around, in 2021, winning with 73 percent to 27 percent, while Street was a strong 9 points clear of his Labour rival.

But it is these results this time around that the Conservative MPs with the power to determine Sunak’s fate are really looking toward.

One Tory MP in the West Midlands said: “If we had a triple whammy — if we were to lose Ben Houchen, Andy Street and half of our [councillors] — then I think some of my colleagues will lose their marbles.”

They anticipated this scenario would lead to a “growing number” of Conservatives writing their letters calling for a vote of no confidence to Graham Brady, the Tory veteran who in his role as chairman of the 1922 Committee oversees such oustings. 

The crucial number of letters to trigger a vote of all Conservative MPs is 52. Many are doubtful the rebels can raise that number, and even if they do, the wider party is considered unlikely to dispose of Sunak so close to the general election.

The person quoted at the top of this article who is attached to the rebel group acknowledged: “We can’t do it without them, and it’s not clear that they are prepared to act.”

“They should do something — even if another leader can’t win, they have a chance to reduce the scale of the defeat and maybe save some seats. But at this stage it doesn’t seem like the MPs are up for it.”

Another strategist advising the rebels reckons Sunak must “lose all mayor fights to be at risk,” saying the loss of Street and Houchen would lead to “at the very least, serious trouble.”

One Conservative adviser, no fan of Sunak’s, said the rebels would be “on a hiding to nothing.”

The lack of a clear-cut replacement for Sunak is cooling the odds of a revolt, but there’s no shortage of would-be contenders who have been flaunting their wares.

There are the critics who resigned from Sunak’s government: Suella Braverman, who quit as Sunak’s home secretary, and Robert Jenrick, who left his job as immigration minister. There are also those biding their time a little more quietly, like another former Home Secretary Priti Patel. And then there are those still serving in Sunak’s Cabinet: Kemi Badenoch, Grant Shapps, James Cleverly and Penny Mordaunt.

‘Think about your colleagues

The likelihood of any boost for the Tories following a change in leader also seems slim. Opinium research suggests that out of four contenders polled, Braverman, Badenoch and Cleverly would all fare even worse than Sunak at a general election. Only Mordaunt saw any kind of uptick — and that was a marginal one that still put the Tories on course for a major defeat.

Only Penny Mordaunt saw any kind of uptick — and that was a marginal one that still put the Tories on course for a major defeat. | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

David Davis, a close ally of Commons Leader Mordaunt, reckons there will be “some sort of maneuver” after the scale of the losses becomes clear, but ultimately the rebels will not have sufficient support ahead of the general election, widely expected to be held in November.

“I think he will be safe after the local elections. He’s then got a run through the spring and through the summer,” the former Brexit secretary told POLITICO.

“This is a point of crisis, of course it is, but once we are through it, the road from here to November looks much smoother,” he added. “There are no clearly dug potholes. There will be some bumps but this is the really big pothole.

“My message to the rebels is: forget about your own personal interests, think about your colleagues and the 50 or so who will be at risk as a result of your action and get back in the team.”

That’s the calculation that Conservative MPs will really be weighing up: Would the turbulence of forcing out their third leader since Boris Johnson won 2019’s general election be worth any potential uptick in support that a more popular leader than Sunak might bring?

The same Conservative MP in the West Midlands quoted above reckons Sunak has “some credit in the bank” after his big promise to hike defense spending and progress in a long-stalled plan to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda.

“But we are such a ruthless, selfish bunch, that our survival is the only thing that’s important to us personally,” they sighed. “And so regardless of how warm we might feel about those things that he’s announced everybody’s mind is just going to be on, is this man likely to win me or lose me my seat?”


As Westminster waits Friday morning for the crucial mayoral results to come in, there’s been grumbling about the handling of the two key races.

An internal party email seen by POLITICO suggested candidates may not be reselected if they did not hit a certain number of campaigning events in their area, causing some unhappiness among the troops. A Conservative official disputed the idea the party had been heavy-handed, and said candidates had simply been asked to “focus some extra help on the mayoral contests.”

Even in the best-case scenario — where Street and Houchen win — Sunak may struggle to make the argument that the prime minister helped in any way given the absence of “Brand Rishi” in both men’s pitches.

But Sunak could claim that his own moderate pitch has been echoed by both candidates and that this shows there’s still a path toward wider electoral victory in spite of the odds. Some of the pressure may even be shifted to Labour Leader Keir Starmer if his opposition party underperforms locally at a time when it’s riding high in the national polls.

The plotters have generated much in the way of headlines, but have so far proved to be little more than a shadowy outfit armed with dire polling for the PM and a cache of damaging intel to hand out. Downing Street seems relatively unconcerned about any threat they may pose.

Some of the pressure may even be shifted to Labour Leader Keir Starmer if his opposition party underperforms locally at a time when it’s riding high in the national polls. | Benjamin Cremel/AFP via Getty Images

If the Tory rebels do press ahead with a bid to oust him, Sunak can be expected to claim he’s focused on the job with a series of announcements.

If they bottle it, the prime minister will feel assured he’ll at least keep his job until the general election. For the rebels, then, it’s now or never.

“We’re doing our jobs and cracking on with running the country. I don’t even know who these boys are,” one senior No. 10 official said.

Rosa Prince contributed additional reporting.