Sunak says 2024 will be ‘year economy bounces back’ as he battles to keep job

A defiant Rishi Sunak insisted he would still be Prime Minister after May’s local elections as he dismissed “Westminster gossip” about Tory plots against his leadership.

Mr Sunak addressed Conservative MPs in Parliament as he battled to assert his authority and rally his party behind him following days of speculation about his position.

And in a BBC interview he insisted his plan for the country was working and “2024 will prove to be the year that the economy bounces back”.

Speculation is rife that rebel Conservative MPs are lining up potential successors should Mr Sunak face a no confidence test before a general election.

Heavy defeats for the Tories in May’s local elections could heap pressure on Mr Sunak.

But the Prime Minister said he would still be in No 10 after the local elections because “the things that we are doing are making a difference”.

Asked whether he would be Prime Minister after May, he told the BBC: “Yes. Because the things that we’re doing are making a difference, right.

“And there’ll always be noises off, there’ll always be people focused on what’s happening at Westminster. But that’s not, when I go around the country every week talking to people, that’s not what they talk to me about.

“What they are talking to me about is making sure that inflation continues to come down, that energy bills and mortgage rates are falling, that we are cutting taxes so that their family have more money in their bank accounts every month… That’s what we’re delivering on the economy.”

ECONOMY Inflation
(PA Graphics)

Mr Sunak was buoyed by a fall in inflation to 3.4% in February, down from 4% in January, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt hinting the improved economic picture could result in tax cuts and reductions in interest rates – which could improve voters’ finances in the run-up to an election later this year.

The Prime Minister said: “I do believe that at the start of this year we have turned a corner after the shocks of the past few years and we are in a new economic moment and 2024 will prove to be the year that the economy bounces back.”

He sought to play down concerns about reports of a backbench plot to oust him as Conservative leader in the interview, insisting that his focus was on the country at large.

“Look, these things don’t infuriate me because you know what, fundamentally, I’m just not interested in Westminster gossip,” the Prime Minister said.

“It’s just that is not what’s important. What’s important is the future of our country, and people’s financial security and the peace of mind that they rightly deserve… That’s what I get up every morning to do and that, I will work every hour God gives to deliver for people.”

In Westminster, Mr Sunak was greeted by Tory MPs banging the tables in support as he arrived at a meeting of the 1922 Committee, where he was expected to stress the need for unity ahead of the May 2 local elections.

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt is reportedly being tipped as a unity candidate to replace Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Conservative backbenchers filing out of the closed-doors session after the PM’s rallying speech sought to stress broad support for the leader.

Jonathan Gullis hit out at what he described as a “tiny minority” of critics and dismissed suggestions of friction at the meeting, claiming there was “not a single dissenting voice” in the room.

“I certainly would call out those idiots for being idiots because essentially all they’re doing is guaranteeing a Labour government and that’s the last thing I want,” he told reporters.

He said the mood in the tea rooms this week suggested Tory MPs were “very upset about the briefings over the weekend” and “it’s distracting their records, it’s distracting from our messaging”.

Asked about reports that backbencher Jake Berry had challenged the Prime Minister over briefings against him on the weekend, Mr Gullis said: “Jake made it very clear that he’s behind the Prime Minister, that he’s absolutely committed to supporting the Prime Minister.

“He’s not put a letter in, he thinks a leadership change would be nuts.”

(PA Graphics)

Another Tory MP echoed Mr Gullis’ words, saying: “It was the best we’ve seen him for a while.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary had suggested the meeting would focus on the need to pull together “to make sure Labour don’t do… to Britain, what they have done to Birmingham.”

The Conservative Party leader has looked to make hay with the situation facing England’s second city, saying at Prime Minister’s Questions that “taxes are going up by 21%” and that “services are being cut” as the local authority looks to balance its books.

The Labour-run city council in Birmingham declared itself effectively bankrupt in September after identifying equal pay liabilities estimated at £760 million. It is now said to be on a “narrow path to financial sustainability”, dependent on budget cuts.

Plotting rebels have reportedly talked up the prospect of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt or security minister Tom Tugendhat, both of whom have previously featured in Tory leadership races, replacing Mr Sunak in Downing Street should he face a confidence vote.

Ms Mordaunt is reportedly being considered as a unity candidate who could be acceptable to both the Tory right and moderates if there is a last-ditch change in leaders before the election.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Heavy defeats for the Tories in May’s local elections could heap pressure on Mr Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

She told reporters on Tuesday she was “getting on with my job”.

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

Mr Sunak’s press secretary said she would not “get into private discussions between colleagues” when asked whether the Prime Minister had spoken to Ms Mordaunt or those calling for a change of leader.

Cabinet minister Esther McVey gave Mr Sunak her full-throated backing, predicting that he would win any potential Tory confidence vote “by a country mile”.

The minister without portfolio told GB News that Ms Mordaunt’s chance of leading the party had “gone to bed” when she “didn’t win” either of the past two leadership battles.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary was asked by reporters if he was disappointed Ms Mordaunt had not firmly denied being part of a plot to replace him.

She replied: “What the Prime Minister wants is all of his Cabinet ministers and the wider Conservative team to focus on delivering for the country.

“We have had some really strong news today with inflation falling further, we have seen wages rising, energy bills falling — clearly the economic picture is improving and he wants all of his ministers focused on that.”

The Tories will be hoping the economic shift highlighted by Mr Sunak will aid its poor poll ratings, with Labour enjoying an average lead of about 20 points.

A further 2p cut in national insurance at the Budget failed to move the dial before the blows of former deputy party chairman Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform UK and a Tory donor racism row brought further unwanted headlines for Mr Sunak’s administration.

Labour hit back at Mr Sunak and No 10’s criticism of the opposition party’s record at local and regional authority level.

A party spokesman said: “What we are seeing is the result of the Government having massively underfunded local government as a whole and the responsibilities that local authorities have been left with in that situation to try and make the best of a very difficult situation.”