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Two ministers quit in double blow to Rishi Sunak

Two Government ministers have resigned in a double blow to Rishi Sunak, who was forced to carry out a mini-reshuffle of his team.

Robert Halfon unexpectedly quit as skills, apprenticeships and higher education minister, while James Heappey followed through on his stated intention to step down as armed forces minister ahead of exiting Parliament at the general election.

Veteran MP Mr Halfon, who has served in a series of senior roles since first being elected to Parliament in 2010, said in a letter to Mr Sunak: “After well over two decades as the Harlow Parliamentary Candidate and as MP, I feel that it is time for me to step down at the forthcoming general election, and in doing so, to resign as a minister in your Government.”

Mr Heappey, the Conservative MP for Wells, Somerset, earlier this month announced his plan to quit as an MP and to stand down as a minister before then.

In a thread posted to X, he wrote: “I’ve loved every minute as MinAF in this incredible department.

“Our Armed Forces & MoD civil servants are the very best of us.

“Representing them in Parliament & around the world over last 4.5 years has been an amazing privilege.”

But he said “the work isn’t done” in backing Ukraine, saying the UK “must continue to lead the world in the breadth and bravery of our support”.

Mr Sunak thanked Mr Heappey for his “invaluable role in implementing the Government’s defence agenda”.

“You have made an important contribution to Government and your support to consecutive Conservative administrations at the Ministry of Defence has been commendable,” the Prime Minister wrote in a letter.

Mr Heappey had reportedly been on “resignation watch” from his ministerial role after telling colleagues privately that he was unhappy about the level of defence spending.

The former soldier issued a departing plea this week for the defence spending target of 2.5% of GDP to be “achieved urgently”.

During a 10-year career in the Rifles, Mr Heappey served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland and Kenya.

He had been hotly tipped to succeed Ben Wallace as defence secretary following his resignation last year.

But Mr Sunak instead gave the Cabinet post to Grant Shapps, who has no military experience.

In his letter to Mr Halfon, Mr Sunak told Mr Halfon he was “very sorry to hear” of his decision to step down from Government and to stand down at the next election.

“You have made an important contribution to our public life, spanning almost 25 years,” the Prime Minister wrote.

He commended Mr Halfon for being a “stalwart champion” for apprenticeships and promoting social mobility.

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been hit by two ministerial resignations (Danny Lawson/PA)

Leo Docherty will replace Mr Heappey as armed forces minister, while Luke Hall has been appointed to the Department for Education following the departure of Mr Halfon.

Other moves in the mini-reshuffle triggered by the resignations include Nus Ghani becoming minister for Europe at the Foreign Office and Alan Mak becoming a junior minister jointly in the Department for Business and Trade and the Cabinet Office.

Kevin Hollinrake, who as Post Office minister held a junior ministerial role, has now been promoted to minister of state rank in the Department for Business and Trade.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Gullis and Angela Richardson have been made deputy chairs of the Conservative Party.

Mr Gullis said he was “ready to take the fight” to Labour.

The scale of the challenge facing Mr Sunak was underlined in a Savanta poll for the Telegraph which put the Tories on their lowest share since the aftermath of Liz Truss’s mini-budget fiasco.

Labour had a 20-point lead, with 44% backing Sir Keir Starmer’s party and 24% saying they would vote Conservative, with Reform UK on 11% ahead of the Liberal Democrats on 10%, according to the survey of 2,216 UK adults carried out on March 22-24.

Savanta’s Chris Hopkins said: “Not since the lowest point of the Liz Truss administration, in the bloody aftermath of her mini-budget and Kwasi Kwarteng’s resignation, have we recorded the Conservative Party vote share this low. With the Conservatives continuing to drop in the polls, Savanta has recorded its biggest Labour lead since September 2023.”

Mr Heappey and Mr Halfon join a growing exodus of Tory MPs from the Commons as the Conservatives languish in the polls ahead of the national vote expected later this year.

As of Tuesday, 63 Conservative MPs have said publicly they are either standing down from Parliament or not contesting their current seat at the general election.

Other recent high-profile additions to the list include former prime minister Theresa May and former party chairman Sir Brandon Lewis.

Ministers who declare they will stand down at the election are not required to leave Government immediately.

Asked whether there was a new rule forcing them to do so, in light of Mr Halfon and Mr Heappey’s departures from frontbench duties, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “I’m not aware of it.

“It’s up to individuals to make these choices.”