Laura Kuenssberg: Are Tories resigned to electoral fate under Rishi Sunak?

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"This is the moment," a senior Tory excitedly told me just before these local elections began.

The moment when Rishi Sunak's leadership was in jeopardy - they hoped at least.

If the results were as dreadful as months of shocking national opinion polls suggest, there was a chance that Conservative MPs would find the desire and the gumption to push for change at the top.

On Saturday night, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street lost his berth after a nail-biting count.

That will be a huge disappointment to the Conservatives who had hoped to hang on there.

Especially with a razor thin margin, and after counting some votes again and again.

Like Ben Houchen on Teesside, Andy Street had campaigned as his own man, not a party apparatchik.

Recounts, and bundles of votes being checked, tell you how close that outcome really was.

The Street result is a huge last minute disappointment, and the council election results are dire. One minister told me there are "lots of places where panic could come from".

But even with the Street defeat, it seems "the moment" is more likely to be the one where Rishi Sunak's position as leader has been confirmed. So far.


Well, Tory HQ can't mention the mayor in Tees Valley, Ben Houchen's victory, often enough.

Before the elections, the party was urging its own MPs and the public to concentrate on where there were prominent local politicians.

It was a not very subtle pre-poll expectation management exercise. Lord Houchen, a local big character, did indeed buck the national trend.

And that showed that in areas where Conservatives had a good, well-known candidate and chucked the kitchen sinks at their campaign, they can win.

Although "there's an irony that a Boris guy, Ben, has saved Sunak", one Tory jokes.

But the result there does give the party at least one reason for cheer.

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Second, the pundits' calculators suggested that if the whole country had voted on Thursday, the gap between the Conservatives and Labour comes out at 9%: not, theoretically, an insurmountable gap to close when the general election campaign is miles away and could bend the curves.

One cabinet minister said that after months of "frothing at the mouth about apocalypse actually, maybe we could have a hung parliament. This will encourage people to believe there is a fight worth having."

Remember too, Labour fell so far behind in 2019 that it needs to shift millions of votes, not a few here and there, to win outright when it comes to the national question.

And even if the numbers look scary in lots of parts of the country, with the Tories losing hundreds of campaign foot soldiers, changing the leader to an as-yet-undecided alternative candidate might just cause more disruption, more bellyaching, more turmoil.

If chaos in the Westminster party has been part of the problem, why on earth would it be the solution?

A former minister says: "There just isn't the impetus to roll the dice one more time."

There is no one guiding idea or philosophy that binds the malcontents together either, beyond 'it looks grim, surely we need to do something or else we're out of a job?'

And there is no agreed candidate.

Indeed, one of those who might be tempted to run, former cabinet minister Suella Braverman, has written in the Sunday Telegraph that while she believes the party must change course, changing the leader is not the answer.

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Rewind to the Theresa May days. The rebels weren't just well organised, they agreed they needed a more dramatic departure from the EU and they had a candidate waiting in the wings - Boris Johnson.

They were pushing for a different policy platform and they had a big personality, bristling with ambition, eager to plot. That's just not the case now.

And yet, one Tory describes it as "Alice in Wonderland" to suggest the victories of a mayor with strong personal backing like Ben Houchen means things are going to be OK for the national party.

And look at some of the other mayoral contests, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, or the embarrassment for Rishi Sunak of losing the mayoral contest in his own North Yorkshire neighbourhood.

Look at the map, not the mayors. Those councils the Conservatives have lost - Nuneaton, Redditch, Milton Keynes, Rushmoor, Basildon and so many others.

It's like a roll call of towns and areas where the Labour party hopes to win MPs at the general election. Add in the Lib Dems taking Dorset council, Tunbridge Wells and kicked the Tories out of control in Gloucester, and, in fact, winning more councillors than the Conservatives for the first time since 1996.

One former Tory minister told me, it has "been an appalling night and no amount of spin from the national party can hide the fact that we are in very, very big trouble".

Many of them are areas that were captured by the Tories as David Cameron made his way to Number 10 that now Keir Starmer is taking back as he attempts the same journey.

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You will hear senior Conservatives claiming it's a normal thing to happen in the mid-term of a government.

But this is not mid-term. We are on the runway to the general election and the string of results culminating in the Tories losing shy of 500 councillors is about as bad as they feared it might be.

The results aren't that different since this time last year. So, hey, maybe no new emergency.

But hey, that means Rishi Sunak just isn't turning things round.

This time last year his allies argued: give us time, we're only just getting to grips with the chaos that Liz Truss and her lettuce created.

They hope there will be better economic news soon. But 12 months since the last set of council elections when the Tories got a kicking, all Rishi Sunak's resets, refreshes and attempts to regroup have had little effect so far.

As a tribe, Rishi Sunak's MPs don't believe they can hang on to Number 10 right now.

But they seem stuck.

Isn't it weird for Tory MPs, often portrayed as the most Machiavellian and competitive people in the country, to hang on to a leader when they are pretty sure they are going to lose the election?

As we've talked about, there are fears another leadership rumpus could do more harm than good after all the travails they've already had.

Some still believe that Sunak is the best option they have. These results are grim. But it's also true that they don't mean Labour is guaranteed to get a majority.

And there's another more calculating factor. Some MPs want Rishi Sunak and his cabinet to soak up the blame, when the defeat they expect comes.

One former cabinet minister says: "Sunak isn't being challenged only because no-one wants to own the failure."

Politics, eh.

So, for now, the Conservative Party seems to have made its choice.

To hold on to power for a few more very difficult months with the hope of improving a dire situation, rather than taking a chance to change things that could spiral into an unknown chaos.

If the Conservatives ultimately crash to a big defeat, this weekend might come to represent the moment it accepted its fate.

One senior MP told me: "If it doesn't happen now then the party has made its choice and will suffer the consequences," with so many councillors gone, "there is nobody else left to sacrifice before it's us MPs."

The loss of the West Midlands mayoralty could give the would be rebels another flash of desire to act. But the consensus in the party as this weekend of results draws to a close seems already to have settled against any concerted move.

Would-be rebels have been avoiding, rather than rushing towards the microphones.

One Tory in their loose camp told me "the momentum was taken out of it on Friday. It had to all start very bad and continue like that. Houchen early saved him".

Will the symbolic loss of Andy Street's perch in the West Midlands change that? When MPs gather together again in Westminster, the mood could darken further, plotters could regroup and stiffen their resolve.

But as the final tallies of winners and losers are finalised, after millions of votes that suggested how unpopular the Tories are right now, Rishi Sunak's backers believe he is safe from his party.

But are the Conservatives safe from the country's verdict?

Certainly not.

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