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Rishi Sunak rejects Labour call for general election now

Rishi Sunak has rejected calls for an immediate general election, saying his "working assumption" is still that it will be in the second half of the year.

Sir Keir Starmer said the PM was "scared" to face voters over his record on immigration and mortgage rates.

Mr Sunak said he thought Sir Keir would be "grateful" for a delay because "he has now actually got time to come up with a plan for Britain".

The Labour leader told him: "We are ready. Just call it."

The clash at Prime Minister's Questions was the final time the two will face each other before MPs go on their Easter break.

Mr Sunak continues to be dogged by reports that some rebel Tory MPs are plotting to replace him as prime minister before the general election, which must be held by January next year at the latest.

The Conservatives have fallen further behind Labour in the opinion polls since Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's tax-cutting Budget aimed at reversing their fortunes.

Later, the prime minister addressed Conservative MPs at a meeting of their backbench 1922 Committee.

He was greeted at the private gathering in Westminster by loud banging on the tables, a customary signal of approval.

One MP reported that the "roof nearly went off". Another said it was "the best we've seen him in a while".

Stoke-on-Trent North MP Jonathan Gullis said he wanted to "call out those idiots" who were agitating against the PM.

He said the party must stay "on message", adding that a "broad range" of Tory MPs were present and there was "not a single dissenting voice in that room".

Mr Sunak had arrived at Prime Minister's Questions with a spring in his step after better-than-expected inflation figures, telling MPs it showed his plan was working.

Sir Keir didn't question Mr Sunak on inflation - instead he claimed half of the PM's cabinet wanted to replace him.

He said Mr Sunak was "so diminished" that his "entire focus is on stopping his MPs holding the sword of Damocles above his head, perhaps even literally".

This was a reference to Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, who has been at the centre of Tory leadership speculation and who famously carried the Sword of State during the King's coronation ceremony.

Mr Sunak claimed Labour "didn't actually care" about "fixing" the immigration system because they had opposed his plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Sir Keir attacked the Rwanda scheme as an expensive "gimmick" and hit back at Mr Sunak's claims about him defending foreign criminals in his former career as a lawyer.

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt grabbed headlines with her role at the King's coronation

"I have prosecuted more people smugglers than he's had helicopter rides - and that's a lot," he told the PM.

He then renewed his call for a general election to put an end to "mortgage mayhem, the waiting lists, the criminals walking free" and "Tory chaos".

Mr Sunak last week ruled out a general election on 2 May, when England and Wales votes in local elections - and Jeremy Hunt dropped a hint on Tuesday that it would happen in October.

"As I said in January, my working assumption is that the election will be in the second half of the year," Mr Sunak told MPs.

'Pull together'

He said he was still waiting to hear how Labour would pay for increased borrowing, adding the government's plan is "working".

"That is the choice: higher taxes and back to square one with Labour or tax cuts and real change with the Conservatives," said the PM.

He would urge Tory MPs to "pull together" and focus on the "improving" economic picture when he addressed the 1922 Committee, his spokeswoman said.

Plotting rebels have reportedly talked up the prospect of Penny Mordaunt or security minister Tom Tugendhat, both former leadership contenders, replacing Mr Sunak in Downing Street should he face a confidence vote.

Asked about the reports on Tuesday, Ms Mordaunt said she was "getting on with my job".

Downing Street refused to say whether Mr Sunak had held talks with Ms Mordaunt since the reports first emerged over the weekend.

Asked if the PM was disappointed Ms Mordaunt had not firmly denied being part of a plot to replace him, his spokeswoman said: "What the prime minister wants is all of his Cabinet ministers and the wider Conservative team to focus on delivering for the country."