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Sunak Struggles for Control in Face of Dire Polls and Tory Anger

(Bloomberg) -- With each new week, Rishi Sunak’s grip on the UK political narrative appears to be diminishing.

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On Monday, Sunak called entrepreneurs and reporters to a speech billed by the UK prime minister’s office as a “major” announcement on the economy, after a weekend of torrid stories about his party plotting against him. The seven-minute address, however, offered little in the way of new policy to reclaim the headlines and dispel the argument he has no prospect of turning things around.

Behind the scenes, his under-pressure staff were trying to calm a fresh dispute with Tory MPs over whether he might call an election in the summer. That followed a briefing by a “senior ally of the prime minister” to the Times newspaper warning that Sunak would call a snap UK vote rather than let Tory Members of Parliament try to oust him.

Far from restoring order, the intervention exacerbated an already febrile mood. One Conservative MP privately called the idea of an early election mad, while another said any attempt to call a vote when the party was so far behind in the polls would be blocked by lawmakers who would then remove Sunak as leader.

By mid-afternoon, a person familiar with Sunak’s thinking quashed the idea. In a matter of hours, then, Sunak’s allies had gone from issuing a tough warning to dramatically backing down in the face of internal Tory pressure.

Sunak is facing the biggest challenge to his authority since he took the job in late 2022, with even some Cabinet ministers privately talking about whether he’s able to lead the party into the election. It was only on Thursday that Sunak publicly ruled out an early vote on May 2, in an effort to cool speculation that was helping to fuel the antagonism toward him. It has brought no respite.

He has failed to put a dent in the Labour Party’s commanding lead in the polls, which put the Tories facing a landslide defeat in an election that must be held by the end of January 2025. The defection of a former party deputy to the right-wing populist Reform UK party, and a racism row embroiling a top Tory donor, have further fueled the maneuvering against him.

“All Conservatives are united,” Sunak said on Monday. In remarks that will be seen as his pitch to stay in the job, the prime minister said the economy had “turned a corner” and that he had “a lot of confidence for the future.”

Sunak has said he intends to hold an election in the “second half” of this year. His preference is to have another tax-cutting budget in September and go to the country in the autumn, though all options except May 2 are being considered, Bloomberg reported on Saturday.

“The polls have barely shifted lately — if anything they are getting worse for the government — so triggering an early summer election would be a huge gamble,” said Will Jennings, politics professor at the University of Southampton. “Waiting until later in the year might allow the PM time to persuade voters that some things are getting better at least — if they do.”

The prime minister’s attempt to project conviction didn’t convince many Tory MPs, especially on the right of the party.

A key reason Sunak has been seen as unassailable is that the Conservative Party is too divided to agree on a successor and that so many MPs think changing leader again before the election would annoy voters.

But in recent days, Tory rebels have been trying to break down those obstacles. Some right-wing lawmakers and advisers who have been agitating against Sunak have suggested they could back a replacement from the more centrist wing of the party, such as Commons leader Penny Mordaunt or Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, to draw more support for their cause.

People familiar with the efforts said the idea would be for one of them to take over for a few months to lead the election campaign. Rebels have circulated polling showing Mordaunt and Tugendhat, who is said to be the favored candidate among so-called One Nation centrists, are more popular than Sunak.

“Now isn’t the time to change leader,” Tugendhat told Bloomberg. “The prime minister needs a united team to deliver for the British people, and to defeat a Labour Party with no serious answers to the challenges we face.”

Mordaunt declined to comment, but has privately told colleagues she wasn’t interested in becoming prime minister before the election, according to a person familiar with her thinking. One ally of Mordaunt said the Tory right is pushing names moderate MPs can get behind to get wider support for a leadership change, before switching their support to either Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch or former Home Office minister Robert Jenrick.

A Sunak supporter criticized Mordaunt for allowing herself to be viewed as a potential caretaker leader. Most Tory MPs did not see her as a credible prime minister because her lack of experience in top jobs and failures in past leadership contests, the person said.

Badenoch sought to distance herself from the plotting, telling broadcasters on Monday of her “frustration” with “tittle tattle” about the Tory leadership. Those remarks raised eyebrows among Sunak loyalists, who have noted her recent spate of social media interventions seen as undermining the leader.

Allies of Sunak said headlines would improve for the government once inflation falls and interest rates are cut, with both expected to happen later this year. They also expect Rwanda deportation flights to begin in May, allowing Sunak to show progress on his flagship immigration policy.

Some are even expecting the Tory candidate for London mayor, Susan Hall, could spring a surprise in the election on May 2, shifting the narrative about what is otherwise expected to be a dire set of local results for Sunak.

But pollster Robert Hayward, who is also a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, said it was unlikely. “If it is close, it would be astonishing and it would be a major victory for the Tory Party,” he said.

Even with all the Westminster plotting and political headwinds around Sunak, most Tory MPs still believe that the prime minister will limp onto the election, albeit with a depressed and disheartened party. That’s partly because few see a way to prevent a Labour victory, while the growing number of Tories choosing to step down also reduces the clamor for another dramatic change.

Some have likened the Tory task to the quixotic charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War. Former Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s echoed similar sentiments in an interview with Times Radio.

“There comes a moment in time in the electoral cycle where you effectively put on your best suit, you stand up and you march toward the sound of the guns and you get on with it,” Wallace said.

--With assistance from Isabella Ward.

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