May 21, 2024

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Laura Kuenssberg: Will the Conservatives resign themselves to electoral fate under Rishi Sunak?

Laura Kuenssberg: Will the Conservatives resign themselves to electoral fate under Rishi Sunak?
  • By Laura Kuenssberg
  • Sunday host with Laura Kuenssberg

Image source, Getty Images

“This is the moment,” one senior Tory MP told me excitedly before the start of these local elections.

The moment when Rishi Sunak’s leadership was in jeopardy – at least they hoped.

If the results were as horrific as months of shocking national opinion polls suggested, there was a chance that Conservative MPs would find the appetite and sophistication to press for change at the top.

On Saturday night, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street lost his place after a troubling count.

That would be a huge disappointment to conservatives who had hoped to stay there.

Especially with such a slim margin, and after some votes have been counted over and over again.

Like Ben Houchen on Teesside, Andy Street campaigned as his own man, not a party member.

Recounts and checking vote totals tell you how close that result really is.

The street result is a huge disappointment at the last minute, and the results of the council elections are dire. One minister told me there were “a lot of places where panic could come from”.

But even with Street’s defeat, ‘the moment’ seems likely to be the moment when Rishi Sunak’s position as leader is confirmed. Until now.

Well, Tory headquarters can’t mention Tees Valley mayor Triumph Ben Houchen often enough.

Before the election, the party was urging its MPs and the public to focus on places where prominent local politicians are located.

This was not a very careful exercise in managing expectations before the poll. Lord Houchin, a major local figure, has already bucked the national trend.

It showed that in areas where the Conservatives had a good, well-known candidate and threw kitchen sinks into their campaign, they could win.

Although “there’s an irony that Boris’s man, Ben, bailed out Sunak,” one Tory joked.

But the result there gives the party at least one reason to cheer.

Second, pundits have calculated that if the whole country voted on Thursday, the gap between the Conservatives and Labor would be 9%: not, in theory, an insurmountable gap when the general election campaign is miles away and could be twisted. Curves.

Remember too that Labor fell so far back in 2019 that it needs to shift millions of votes, not a few here and there, to win outright when it comes to the national question.

Even if the numbers look dire in many parts of the country, with the Conservative Party losing hundreds of campaign soldiers, a change of leader to an undecided alternative candidate could cause more turmoil, more turmoil, more turmoil.

If chaos in the Westminster party is part of the problem, why is this the solution?

“There’s no incentive to roll the dice again,” says a former minister.

There’s no single guiding idea or philosophy that binds the disaffected either, other than “It looks bleak, surely we need to do something or else we’ll be out of work?”

There is no agreed upon candidate.

Indeed, one of those who might be inclined to run, former minister Suella Braverman, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that although she believes the party must change course, a change of leader is not the answer.

Rewind to the days of Theresa May. Not only were the rebels well organised, they agreed that they needed a more dramatic Brexit and they had a candidate waiting for them – Boris Johnson.

They were pushing for a different political program and had a big personality, full of ambition, and eager to plot. This is not the case now.

However, one Conservative describes it as “Alice in Wonderland” to suggest that victories for a mayor with strong personal support like Ben Houchen mean things will be fine for the National Party.

Look at the map, not the mayors. Those councils that the Tories lost – Nuneaton, Redditch, Milton Keynes, Rushmore, Basildon and many others.

It is like a roll call of the towns and areas where Labor hopes to win MPs in the general election. Add to this the Lib Dems’ takeover of Dorset Council, Tunbridge Wells and the Tories’ sweeping out of control in Gloucester, in effect, winning more councilors than the Tories for the first time since 1996.

“It has been a terrible night and no amount of manipulation by the National Party can hide the fact that we are in very, very big trouble,” one former Tory minister told me.

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You will hear senior Conservatives claim that it is normal for this to happen in the middle of a government term.

But this is not the midterm. We are well on our way to a general election, and the run of results culminating in the Conservatives losing fewer than 500 council members is as dramatic as they feared.

The results are no different since this time last year. So, hey, maybe there’s no new emergency.

But wait, that means Rishi Sunak isn’t shaking things up.

This time last year, his allies argued: Give us time, we’re just dealing with the mess created by Liz Truss and her lettuce.

They hope there will be better economic news soon. But 12 months after the last set of council elections when the Conservatives were kicked, all the resets, updates and attempts at regrouping by Rishi Sunak have so far had little impact.

As a tribe, Rishi Sunak’s MPs don’t think they can stick to No. 10 at the moment.

Isn’t it strange that Tory MPs, often portrayed as the most Machiavellian and competitive people in the country, should cling to a leader when they are certain they will lose an election?

As we talked about, there are concerns that having another leadership could do more harm than good after all the suffering they have already gone through.

Some still think Sunak is their best option. These results are grim. But it is also true that they do not mean that Labor will get a majority.

There is another factor that is more mathematical. Some MPs want Rishi Sunak and his government to take the blame when the defeat they expect comes.

So, for now, the Conservative Party appears to have made up its mind.

Holding on to power for a few more very difficult months in the hope of improving the dire situation, rather than seizing the opportunity to change things that could turn into unknown chaos.

If the Conservatives ultimately suffer a major defeat, this weekend may mark the moment they accept their fate.

“If it doesn’t happen now, it means the party has made its choice and will suffer the consequences,” one senior MP told me, and with so many MPs gone, “there is no one else left to sacrifice for us MPs.”

Losing the West Midlands mayor’s office could give would-be rebels another flash of desire to act. But the consensus within the party as results approach this weekend appears to have already settled against any coordinated action.

Would-be insurgents were avoiding the microphones rather than rushing toward them.

“The momentum was taken away from him on Friday,” one conservative in their loose camp told me. “It should have all started out so bad and continued that way. Houshin saved it early.”

Will the symbolic loss of Andy Street’s status in the West Midlands change that? When MPs meet again in Westminster, the mood may turn darker, and the conspirators may be able to regroup and strengthen their resolve.

But as the final tallies of winners and losers are finalised, after millions of votes indicating just how unpopular the Tories are at the moment, Rishi Sunak’s supporters believe he is safe from his party.

But are conservatives safe from ruling the country?

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