Sunak in tug of war between rival Tory factions after local election defeat

PM under pressure from senior Conservatives to move party further to the right in a desperate bid to hold on to power after catastrophic loss of nearly 500 council seats

David Maddox
Political editor
Sunday 05 May 2024 22:00 BST
Suella Braverman admits she regrets backing Rishi Sunak to become prime minister

Rishi Sunak faces a Tory political power struggle as he tries to recover from disastrous results in the local elections.

As tensions mounted, Labour warned that Mr Sunak risks becoming “a prisoner” of those on the right wing of his party “with dangerous views” as he tries to cling to power after calamitous local election results.

It came as former home secretary Suella Braverman led right-wing calls for the prime minister to take a tougher stance on issues like immigration. But Andy Street, the Tory defeated in the West Midlands mayoral contest, urged him not to drift to the right.

The prime minister spent Sunday hunkered down in No 10 after his party lost almost 500 council seats in the local elections, suffered a stunning defeat in the West Midlands mayoral race, and was humiliated by Labour in London, where Sadiq Khan was easily re-elected.

However, he vowed to shrug off the “disappointing” local election results and to “redouble” his efforts to stick to his political targets.

Rishi Sunak is facing a challenge to stave off a rebellion on the right (Molly Darlington)

He came under fire from Ms Braverman, who said Tory voters were “on strike” because Mr Sunak was “not conservative enough”.

But Mr Street drew the opposite lesson from the local election results, and said the Tories must not abandon “moderate, tolerant, inclusive conservatism”.

The events of the last few days have triggered another ferocious battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, as leading figures exchanged blows on which way it should turn.

It emerged that the right wing of the Tory party has already attempted to capitalise on Mr Sunak’s weakness and lack of support among Tory MPs, who have spent the weekend debating his future behind the scenes.

A meeting in the last fortnight between the prime minister and two grandees from the party’s right wing – Sir John Hayes and Sir Edward Leigh – saw Mr Sunak being pushed to become more right wing if he wanted to stay as prime minister.

A source told The Independent that the two represented a much larger group of MPs, and that “the facts were laid out for the prime minister that he needs to become more conservative”.

Andy Street’s defeat is a huge blow to the Tories (PA Archive)

It was one of a number of discussions the prime minister has had with different factions.

But it was noted that he moved to appease the right ahead of the local elections by pushing through his controversial Rwanda bill to allow deportations of asylum seekers to east Africa. He then authorised the filming of asylum seekers being rounded up into vans, just ahead of polling day.

On Saturday, Sir John publicly backed the prime minister to keep his job following that particular stunt, and claimed that the images of asylum seekers being rounded up for deportation “ensured that we held on to seats we would have otherwise lost”.

He said: “We need half a dozen more headlines like that and then we can win again.”

It has fed Labour’s allegations that Mr Sunak is now “a prisoner of the right”.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general, said: “Every week there is some new story about Rishi Sunak being pushed around by his own Trussite MPs pressuring him to lurch even further to the right.

“It’s clear he’s nothing but a prisoner to those with the most dangerous views within his party, and he’s simply too weak to say no.

“The British public deserve better than this constant psychodrama under the Tories. Only the changed Labour Party can deliver that.”

But now plans are in place to push the government even further to the right, fuelled by fears over burgeoning support for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK.

A tweet by Tory chair Richard Holden seemed to confirm that the party believes Andy Street lost in the West Midlands because 34,471 voters peeled off to Mr Farage’s right-wing party.

Mr Holden quoted Reform leader Richard Tice saying: “We stopped Andy Street from winning in the West Midlands. We’re delighted by that.”

Conservative MP Sir John Hayes met with the prime minister (PA Archive)

The Tory chair added: “A vote for Reform is a vote to help Labour win. Mr Tice’s own words.”

A senior Tory MP told The Independent that the election results “prove Reform cannot win” but show that “they can be wreckers in tight seats for the Conservatives”.

The influential Common Sense Group of right-wing MPs, which is focused on immigration and the so-called culture wars, is now expected to write to Mr Sunak next week calling for an urgent meeting, with a list of demands.

Ms Braverman, who is close to Sir John and the Common Sense Group, has already demanded that Mr Sunak bring right-wingers like her back into his cabinet, adopt a policy of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, and cap legal immigration.

She told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that she now “regrets” supporting Mr Sunak when he ran against Boris Johnson for the leadership, but said that “there is no superman or superwoman to replace him now”.

Ms Braverman added: “The plan is not working and I despair at these terrible results.

“I love my country, I care about my party, and I want us to win, and I am urging the prime minister to change course, to – with humility – reflect on what voters are telling us, and change the plan and the way that he is communicating and leading us.”

Another right-winger, Dame Andrea Jenkyns, said Mr Sunak needs to allow Boris Johnson to run for parliament at the next election.

She has put in a letter of no confidence in the prime minister, but describes Mr Johnson’s return as “a plan B alternative” to changing leader.

Meanwhile, it is understood that allies of former prime minister Liz Truss, including the Taxpayers Alliance, plan to launch a new push for massive tax cuts on Monday, pointing out that the tax burden is at an 80-year high.

All this comes as several respected Tory voices have publicly warned Mr Sunak not to “drift to the right”, including defeated West Midlands mayor Mr Street.

Mr Street, who lost to Labour’s Richard Parker by a mere 1,508 votes, was asked by Sky News if picking a new leader from the right would be the wrong idea.

He replied: “Categorically yes! The reason is that in [the West Midlands], this most urban, youngest, most diverse place in Britain, we have come within 1,500 votes of winning.”

Former London minister Paul Scully said he feared that the party is “going full circle back to 1997” when he first joined, and that it was ideologically right wing at the time but was out of power for 13 years before moving to the centre again.

He said: “If we want to govern, we have to govern from the centre. If you look at voters, people are getting older and older before they even think of voting Conservative, and that is not sustainable.”

Former Tory MP Phillip Lee, who left the party and ultimately joined the Liberal Democrats over Brexit, warned that Mr Sunak is now “irrelevant” and that the Conservative Party is “in danger of being a prisoner of the right”.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in