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Rishi Sunak may have less than two weeks left

It's the final countdown. Credit: Getty

April 20, 2024 - 8:00am

The latest opinion poll from Ipsos puts the Conservative Party on just 19%. Significantly, that means a telephone-based pollster is now in line with online operations such as YouGov. Both now have Reform UK well above 10% — which would mean catastrophe for the Tories.

Of course, what would really substantiate these polls is some real-world electoral data. Luckily, we’re just two weeks away from getting it: the local elections are on 2 May.

So what happens to Rishi Sunak if the outcome confirms the worst? Will he be replaced as leader and therefore prime minister? Or, to put in another way, why on Earth wouldn’t he be? If Tory doomsday really is on the cards, then the more rigorous approach is to look at the no-change leadership scenarios and ask how plausible they are.

For instance, could the fog of war save Sunak? There are various technical reasons for why it’s hard to turn piecemeal local results into general election vote shares. By the time that John Curtice has done his sums, the news agenda might have moved on. And yet there’ll be enough headline results on which to build a doomsday narrative. For instance, if Sadiq Khan gets a thumping majority in London while Andy Street is defeated in the West Midlands, that will crystallise the Tory predicament. Then there’s the number of lost councillors — the blues did well last time these seats were fought, so expect the difference to be hung around Sunak’s neck. Watch out also, for local results in Cabinet ministers’ constituencies.

Assuming the end is nigh — and visibly so — are there any scenarios in which Sunak is allowed to lead his party into the abyss? It could be that his MPs have already given up. So far, 63 have announced they’re standing down. However, the Tories have been around since the 17th century. Whatever individual MPs may decide, the institution is hardwired for survival. If that means rolling the dice again on a new leader, then needs must.

MPs may judge that a bitter civil war just months before a general election would be more damaging than the election itself. However, the PM — unlike his immediate predecessors — is a reasonable man. If the local results lay bare a hopeless situation, he may go quietly. That way, he can get on with his career, instead of fighting a thankless general election campaign only to resign his seat afterwards.

Finally, what if he’s ready to go, but there’s no one ready and able to replace him? Why would his successors want the job before the election and not afterwards, when they could start with a clean slate? Well, apart from getting to be prime minister for a bit, some candidates are more likely to be chosen now than later. Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman might be waiting in the wings at present, but they are less likely to prevail in the drawn-out contest of ideas that would take place in Opposition.

The fact is that Sunak has had his try. In a fortnight it will be clear whether his plan offers the slightest hope of success. If it doesn’t, then change is the only chance.


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

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Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
28 days ago

I think it’s unlikely for a couple of reasons. First it’s a total hospital pass so who is masochistic enough? Secondly, about a quarter of the Grey Men are not standing again including the current chairman, I expect that gongs feature quite largely in their calculus atm so why risk ditching Rishi for an unknown quantity at this late hour?

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
28 days ago

You see, I think articles like this are very silly. If Sunak continues as PM up to the next election, will the write have a few quid deducted from his pay?
What are the consequences of being wrong?

Zero.

AC Harper
AC Harper
28 days ago

It would lead to radically different punditry if every forecaster was held to the outcome of their forecasts and lost money if they failed.
I’ve argued before that economic forecasters should have their forecasts recorded and their reputation ‘scored’ as events unfolded. However the style of punditry would change to something far more speculative and dispassionate – and people wouldn’t bother to read or listen to such bland stuff.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
27 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

One of Boris’ problems was as a journalist he could write popular articles week after week and not worry about the inherent contradictions.
As PM he discovered one has to be consistent and other journalists will pick up any problem statements

AC Harper
AC Harper
28 days ago

However, the Tories have been around since the 17th century. Whatever individual MPs may decide, the institution is hardwired for survival. If that means rolling the dice again on a new leader, then needs must.

But historically the leadership is not the key issue in the Conservative’s survival – it has been down to a major policy pivot (such as the repeal of the Corn Laws). So if Sunak goes the new leader must embody a significant policy change.
Liz Truss may not have been the best choice to implement her major policy pivot… but significant parts of the Parliamentary Conservative Party were not (then) brave enough or desperate enough to support her. It may need a thorough electoral drubbing to smack some sense into the remaining Conservatives. The performance of the expected Labour government may help concentrate minds.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

Noone wanted him in the first place, not even the conservative party.. clear representative of the global elite. The shutdown of Tata steel ( or its disembowelment) enabled and encouraged by giant subsidies really should wake up anyone who thinks their country is being run by someone who cares anout them

Robbie K
Robbie K
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Noone wanted him in the first place, not even the conservative party.

That’s a bit of a stretch considering he only lost narrowly to Truss previously.
He is however an utter failure on so many levels, with any luck he will go quietly, but I doubt it.

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
26 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Lost narrowly? By most standards it was a wipeout, even though Truss was obviously going to win so stopped campaigning.

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
28 days ago

Who else would want this poisoned chalice ? And what is the guarantee that a new leader would poll any better than Rishi Sunak. ? It is not the man that is the problem but the product.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
27 days ago
Reply to  Elon Workman

There’s always someone venal enough to take the job.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago

If only Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid had just focussed on doing their (very important) jobs in July 2022, rather than plotting and resigning in order to replace an elected and electable Prime Minister and government with a series of unelected and unelectable ones. Better for their own careers, better for the country, and certainly better for the Conservative Party. A government with Johnson as PM, Sunak as Chancellor, Truss (or Raab) as Foreign Secretary and Patel as Home Secretary was stronger than one with Sunak as PM, Hunt as Chancellor, Cameron as Foreign Secretary and Cleverly as Home Secretary. Careful what you wish for.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Your analysis rather fails to take into account that Boris Johnson is a total charlatan, standing on a false premise and essentially betraying his Red Wall voters by, incredibly, liberalising immigration policy.

The Net Zero insanity is signed up to by almost all senior Conservatives, including Johnson (who of course performed a 180 degree U-turn on this subject as well).

He is somebody who frankly either has few principles, or changes them according to the political wind, including the views of his very “woke” partner. And just in electoral terms Boris Johnson’s government was haemorrhaging support while he was still PM.

People who either think Johnson is a hero, or alternatively is the worst thing since Hitler, are entirely missing the major point of the radical progressive takeover of this country. Blatant lies are being told on a frequent basis and complete scientific untruths are propagated, including that the end of the world is nigh, and men can be women if they want to be.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
27 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Hear, hear.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
28 days ago

I think it will be a surprise leader this time around, and I’d go for Robert Jenrick on a heavily anti-immigration platform.
If a woman is preferable, they just definitely opt for Miriam Cates. Young, passionate and as yet untried in spite of her popularity with the less august end of the Right who would never dream of giving a vote to Labour via Reform UK.

Peter James
Peter James
28 days ago

There are two issues: competence and policies. The Government is (rightly) perceived as being incompetent. However, which Tory MPs are competent enough to run a country? In terms of policies the parliamentary party seems mostly One Nation Conservatives which in inimical to change, growth or freedom as well as supporting the big state, high taxation and increased regulation.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
28 days ago

The question is really whether anyone would want to take over at the helm of the Conservative party.

Robbie K
Robbie K
28 days ago
Reply to  Rob Britton

Maybe they would, after all the election is a free hit now, then they would have the following parliament to build a reputation on. In opposition.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
28 days ago

Part of the issue for the Tories (only a part, there’s a lot else wrong) is that they keep changing their leader. Plus they’ve been destined to lose the next GE for at least a couple of years. So changing leader again is not going to help.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
27 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

They keep changing their leader because they no longer have any idea what they stand for, and that’s their real problem.

Liam F
Liam F
27 days ago

Yep, they’ve morphed in a socialist party of some sort.

James Kirk
James Kirk
28 days ago

If he was a reasonable man he’d have resigned already. After May 2nd I imagine 53 letters to Brady and a following vote of no confidence. If they must have a new leader, preferably not a woman, we’ve tried them and they just wind everyone up, so someone 85%/2 of the population relates to.

j watson
j watson
28 days ago

Make no difference. Country fed up with the lot of them and the factions within the Tories and on the Right more broadly that have dragged us down with falsities, unhinged ambition and incompetence. Another Tory takes over and we just get another set of slogans. The Right needs to go away and have a long hard think if it wants to be taken seriously.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
28 days ago

Pass the popcorn – I’m going to enjoy this!

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
27 days ago

Better finish it before Starmer gets in. Popcorn will be proscribed under labour as a traditional indigenous native peoples food-group that has been appropriated by racist, white, colonialists. The State approved substitute will be GM-free fried cockroaches.

Oh, and champagne will also be banned too, so you’ll have to get by on shloer mixed with white lightening.

Enjoy!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

Nobody would want the job – it’s like being offered the leadership of the Light Brigade just as they start the charge.
Why would Sunak Turkey vote for an early Christmas? He will keep going for as long as possible hoping that some horrible scandal will engulf the Labour Party.

Don’t expect to see an election before November.

j watson
j watson
27 days ago

The merry-go-round is inevitable consequence of the Tories, and the broader Right, failing to settle a range of contradictions in it’s own philosophies. The merry-go round will continue until it does that.
Of course it’s not helped when buffoons or simply poor politicians are it’s elected leaders.
Enough folks have had enough of the last 14yrs to not care too much who is leading this ramble. They are going to get rid of them when the chance presents whoever is leading.
An additional reflection – the Right’s failure to be honest about it’s contradictions and tendency towards in incompetent populism includes the role played by publications such as UnHerd. It’s part of the ideological debate on Right and thus has to also share some of the blame. It’s fixation on culture wars (not that there isn’t some woke nonsense to kick back against) means it help creates the echo-chamber where Right leaning folks think it’s what the majority are worked up about too. As they are about to find, they are more worked up about other things that UnHerd rarely touches upon.

Matt M
Matt M
27 days ago

Get Kemi in!

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
27 days ago

They could swallow their pride and invite Farage back into the fold. He would win a leadership bid hands down with the membership, and possibly the election. But even if not, imagine him leading the opposition against Starmer.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
27 days ago

Oh please! Just when you think the Tories can’t possibly be any more out of touch someone suggests something as stupid as this!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
27 days ago

I can’t see the point of this article. Was it actually worth writing? Unlike many UnHerd articles it is just stating the obvious. It hardly represents innovative radical thinking of any kind.