top of page

Another One?!

26 January 2024
| by Field Team

Rishi Sunak faces a leadership coup from within his own party. Will the latest Conservative leader survive until the next general election?

You’re joking … not another one! Brenda from Bristol’s now famous response to hearing of the 2017 snap election would be us all if there was another Conservative leadership contest. Surely, surely we can’t have a sixth Conservative Prime Minister since 2010.

Well former Cabinet Minister and Sunak’s old deputy Simon Clarke got the lobby excited with his call for the PM to step down. This was followed by speculation about several “plots” – one to install Kemi Badenoch as PM, another for Penny Mordaunt. In the Conservative Party regicide is never too far away. ‘Grandees’ however were quick to call for unity including Priti Patel, Damian Green and Liam Fox, rubbishing the suggestion that what we need is another new PM. So is there actually a chance of this happening, and if so, why?

The political consensus since Liz Truss has been that the public are absolutely sick to the teeth of disunited parties and change and what the Conservatives need to do is show unity and stability. Jeremy Hunt was kept on as Chancellor for the very reason of showing the markets and the public stability. More in-fighting would just drive down the polls even further.

But does that argument stack up when multiple polls put the Conservatives at 20%? For context, John Major won 30.7% in 1997 when Labour won a landslide. The election is not just about who camps up in Downing Street, it is about who your local MP is. Put yourself in the MP’s shoes: you’ve wanted to be an MP your whole life, but now because of the unpopularity of your leader you’re about to lose and become unemployed.

In 2022 there was still some hope amongst Conservative MPs that they could turn it around. And even then, it was really only the newly elected 2019ers that truly feared losing their jobs. Now it is much more than that, in the latest MRP poll nearly 200 Conservatives are on course to lose their seats – many now fear the job centre when they used to think their majority was strong enough for a seat for life. Some of these MPs aren’t just going to sit around and accept defeat – indeed, Simon Clarke by current polling will lose his seat, whereas those who denounced him have safer seats.

Let’s not forget it only takes 15% of the Conservative MPs – or 52 MPs – to submit a letter of no confidence in Sunak to trigger a vote of no confidence. That is fewer than the 60 Conservatives who rebelled to vote for amendments to the Rwanda Bill, and about a quarter of those at risk of losing their seat. Of course, only one man – Sir Graham Brady – knows how many letters have been submitted. But there are at least three potential trigger points for more letters going in.

First, 15th February is when the Conservatives are set to defend two constituencies in a by-election. Wellingborough was once considered to be a safe seat, but Kingswood less so. Having said that the majorities are 18,540 and 11,220 respectively, smaller than recent by-election defeats. But because of recent results they are expected to lose both. If that happened, it would show that the recent tax cuts have not moved the dial.

Sunak will then be under a lot of pressure to deliver big at the Spring Budget on the 6th March. Without significant tax cuts and a big sell to the public many MPs will see the situation as irreversible. It is one of the last big moments Sunak has to try and win back votes. If backbenchers see no fight from the PM, they could try and make the switch before the May elections.

Then of course on the 2nd May are the local elections (and we can’t rule out a General Election here either). If Conservative councils and councillors, and even worse Mayors including Andy Street and Ben Houchen, fall then the writing will really be on the wall. Many backbenchers will conclude that if no progress is made between now and May, then it will be too late and some will see the only option as a complete change in direction.

If the 52 MP threshold is reached, even if Sunak wins the vote his authority will be shot. Theresa May lasted 6 months after facing a vote, Boris Johnson lasted barely two… That is why some are calling for the threshold to be raised to avoid further destabilisation.

The argument for a new leader is that they can go into the Election claiming to be the party of change, that they would bring dynamism and new ideas to a party that seems to just be limping on. The rebuttal is that the public are just tired of the party and that nothing can save them. But for many MPs, its less about keeping the keys to Downing Street, but keeping their own seat.

bottom of page