March 14, 2024 - 1:00pm

Rishi Sunak is on the skids. After a limp dishcloth of a Budget, the defection of Lee Anderson and the bungled response to this week’s race row, his party’s patience is running out. As Tim Montgomerie puts it, “he’s a nice man, but he can’t do politics.” The Prime Minister can’t do policy either — wasting his time in office on a bizarrely basic programme of government. 

Reporting from today suggests that MPs are agitating for a change in leader and, with poll ratings in the low-to-mid twenties, the Tories might as well take a gamble before the general election. Or at least that’s the theory, as replacing Sunak will be tricky in practice.

The traditional method of ousting a Tory PM is for him or her to win (yes, win) a party vote of confidence. As in the case of Theresa May in 2018 and Boris Johnson in 2022, this typically proves to be a Pyrrhic victory with the “winner” losing office within months or even weeks. However, in an election year there isn’t time for that rigmarole. The process has to be accelerated, which would require Sunak to resign.

The obvious trigger point is the local and mayoral elections on 2 May. A disastrous set of results would give him a reason to go voluntarily — or, if he won’t, a justification for the men in grey suits to force him out.

A new leader would then need to be chosen and settled in as prime minister by 23 July, which is when Parliament breaks up for the long summer recess. There are three options for making that choice: a full leadership contest with party members’ ballot, an MPs-only ballot, or a “coronation” (i.e. an informal consensus of MPs). The precedents for all three are poor. The first method selected Liz Truss, the second Theresa May and the third Sunak himself. That said, the fastest option is a coronation.

One problem with that approach, though, is that there’s no obvious leader-in-waiting. No candidate is so strong as to make the choice clear. Looking down the list of possibles, all them are hobbled in one way or another and thus unable to break free of the pack.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Frost might have stood a chance if they were (still) MPs, but it’s almost certainly too late to change that. Suella Braverman, is perhaps the most prominent of Sunak’s critics, yet she’s no longer the undisputed champion of the Tory Right. With Priti Patel re-emerging as a rival, the two former home secretaries risk cancelling each other out.

Within the Government ranks, the frontrunners are Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch. If one of them were able to outpace the other that might settle the leadership question, but the ConservativeHome Cabinet league table shows them locked in a competition for top spot. Both need to flesh out their agendas and address their perceived weaknesses, whether it’s a lack of work ethic or a tendency for confrontation.

Robert Jenrick is a dark horse in the context, having pulled off a remarkable change of image to become a contender. Though he starts from a low base, and probably won’t win, he’s proof that reinvention can get results, and at very least boost a candidate’s profile.

The bookies’ favourites — Badenoch, Mordaunt and Braverman — should take note. They can congratulate themselves on where they’ve got so far, but none of them has done well enough to guarantee a coronation. At the current rate of crisis, they have two months to move out of their comfort zones and claim the crown.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.