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New Tory Defection Shows Sunak Losing Grip on Johnson Coalition

(Bloomberg) -- The Conservative mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester defected to the upstart Reform UK party, in the latest sign that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is losing support in areas crucial to the Tories’ victory in the last general election.

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Dan Barker, who had also been head of a local Conservative committee, announced his decision to join the right-leaning Reform group on X on Thursday, calling it “the new home of conservatism.” He’s facing a long-shot bid to unseat the Labour-backed incumbent, Andy Burnham, in an election slated for six weeks from now.

While Barker is little known in Westminster, his departure will likely add to the sense of urgency within the British ruling party that it needs to turn around its political fortunes ahead of the local elections on May 2, as well as a general election in the second half of the year. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had relied on gains in former Labour strongholds across northern England — the so-called Red Wall — in his landslide election win in 2019.

Barker’s defection came the same day as a new poll showing the Nigel Farage-backed Reform threatening to overtake the Conservatives as the country’s second-most-popular party. The survey of 2,037 adults showed the Conservatives with 19% support — tied with their lowest level in this Parliament — while Reform recorded 15% support, their highest rating. Labour continued to lead with 44%.

Barker follows former Conservative Deputy Party Chairman Lee Anderson, who defected earlier this month after Sunak removed party backing from him. Reform UK, which promises tax cuts, improved access to health care and dramatic curbs on immigration as part of a more populist agenda, hopes to resonate in the Red Wall areas.

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Sunak has struggled to put down rebellions in the ruling party among MPs who believe they need a change of leader ahead of the elections to avoid political disaster. On Wednesday, the prime minister urged Tories in a private meeting to show greater unity, dismissing the rebels as a small group attempting to undermine his government.

The Conservatives now have 15 days to select a new candidate for the Greater Manchester post.

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