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Voters turn on ‘spineless’ Sunak as dire poll results and Rwanda row spark fresh leadership crisis

Tory alarm over prediction of landslide election defeat, as Lee Anderson joins Tory rebels ahead of showdown vote on ‘stop the boats’ pledge

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 16 January 2024 10:22 GMT
Tory MP Simon Clarke vows to vote against Rishi Sunak's flagship Rwanda policy

Rishi Sunak is facing a landslide general election defeat because he is seen as “spineless and false” and makes people “cringe”, according to a top pollster.

The verdict came as a major new survey indicated that Labour is heading for a repeat of Tony Blair’s crushing victory over the Tories in 1997.

Conservative alarm at the results – allied to a fresh split over the controversial Rwanda bill – prompted speculation that the Tories could face their third leadership contest in less than 18 months.

Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson rocked Mr Sunak’s authority by backing right-wing rebels trying to force the PM to toughen up the deportation bill ahead of a showdown vote on Wednesday.

Hardline MPs are vowing to vote against the government if Mr Sunak refuses to back down – with one telling The Independent that the chances of a seismic defeat that could end his time at No 10 are “underpriced”.

The Tory leader was left reeling as a YouGov poll of 14,000 voters found Labour would achieve a stunning 120-seat Commons majority if the election took place today.

And the PM’s hopes of improving his plummeting ratings suffered another blow as details of the devastating findings of a separate survey emerged.

Focus group research, carried out by JL Partners, found that members of the public now regard Mr Sunak with barely concealed contempt.

Tory chair Lee Anderson has backed rebel amendments to Sunak’s Rwanda bill (PA)

Words commonly used to describe him by the focus group, conducted last week, included “limp, spineless, out of touch, full of himself and false”. Mr Sunak – once known as “Dishy Rishi” – was also said to make voters “cringe”.

James Johnson of JL Partners told The Independent: “The way to win elections in 2024 is by being the strongman. People value plain speaking in a leader more than managerial style competence.

“The reason they liked Sunak so much as chancellor in the pandemic was because he stepped up to the plate and stood up to Boris Johnson at times. That is not how he comes across any more,” added the former No 10 pollster.

Mr Johnson had some blunt advice for Sunak’s team: “They appear to think he is as popular as he was during the pandemic, posting jolly videos of him on social media. He isn’t. They could make a start by stopping pretending he is a rock star and banning him from smiling.”

Despite Sir Keir Starmer’s party’s huge poll lead the focus group verdict on the Labour leader was only slightly better. Common reactions to him were “Sir Flip Flop”, a “people pleaser”, “says what people want to hear” and “no plan”.

Mr Johnson said: “Starmer is winning more by accident, because voters are so fed up with the Conservatives and because he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, than out of any genuine enthusiasm for him.”

Rishi Sunak played down the grim YouGov survey, saying the general election was the ‘only poll that matters’ (PA)

The landmark YouGov survey of 14,000 people found that the Tories were headed for as few as 169 seats, while Labour would sweep into power with 385 – giving Sir Keir a massive 120-seat majority.

The survey, commissioned by Tory donors working with arch-Brexiteer David Frost, also predicts that chancellor Jeremy Hunt could be one of 11 cabinet ministers to lose their seats, in what would be the biggest collapse in support for a governing party since 1906.

The Tories’ election chief Isaac Levido fired backed at Lord Frost at a meeting of backbenchers’ 1922 committee. The strategist said those who organised the timing of the poll - ahead of the Rwanda vote - are “intent on undermining this government” and “more interested in what happens after the election than fighting it”.

And Mr Sunak played down the sobering results during a visit to Essex, telling broadcasters: “The only one that matters is the one when the general election comes.”

Sir Keir told his troops to “ignore” the poll in a bid to keep complacency at bay. “We have to earn every vote, respect every vote and we should always, always, fight like we’re 5 per cent behind.”

Mr Anderson heaped further misery on Mr Sunak by revealing on X/Twitter, that he was backing amendments to the Rwanda bill by Tory grandee Sir Bill Cash and ex-immigration minister Robert Jenrick. “I have signed the Cash and Jenrick amendments. I will vote for them.”

Asked if the Tory whips have told him he can still remain in his role as deputy chair, Mr Anderson told reporters: “No, I haven’t been told that.”

The home secretary James Cleverly joined Sunak in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, on Monday (Getty)

Although he did not resign from the job, Mr Anderson’s allies believe he is more likely to quit before he is fired by Mr Sunak.

Earlier on Monday, grilled on whether he would sack Mr Anderson if he rebelled, Mr Sunak said only: “I’m frustrated about the situation ... I’m confident that the bill we’ve got is the toughest that anyone’s ever seen.”

To make matters worse for No 10, Brendan Clarke-Smith became the second deputy Tory chair to join the Rwanda rebellion. He said he was backing the amendments because he wanted the legislation “to be as strong as possible”.

Senior Tory rebel Sir Simon Clarke pounced upon the dire YouGov polling to warn that the party could be “destroyed” at the general election unless it takes tougher action on small boats.

Vowing to vote against Mr Sunak’s Rwanda bill if the PM does not accept right-wing amendments, Mr Clarke told the BBC: “I’ve been clear with the whips, if the bill goes forward unamended I will be unable to offer it my support.”

Almost 60 right-wingers have now backed amendments by Mr Jenrick, with votes on the proposed changes to come on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tory MPs Mark Francois and David Jones of the ERG have warned the rebellion is big enough to threaten the Rwanda bill (PA)

As well as trying to block any role for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in deportation cases, Mr Jenrick and others have demanded that Mr Sunak restricts the grounds on which illegal migrants can bring claims.

It would take just 29 Tory MPs to overturn Mr Sunak’s 56-seat parliamentary majority and defeat the government at the final Commons vote on Wednesday.

Hardliners in the New Conservatives and the European Research Group (ERG) met on Monday to discuss their amendments ahead of the crucial third reading showdown.

One senior right-wing Tory MP involved in the discussions said there was a “growing feeling it is better not to have any bill than a bill that doesn’t work”.

And John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group, told The Independent: “There is significant support for the amendments – it’s more than I think the government were anticipating. I’m hopeful the government will listen.”

But another senior Tory MP – a hardliner on immigration – said the rebellion would “fade away in the end”. They added: “Most realise to defeat the government to bring down one of its major policies on this would be political madness. We’re only months away from an election.”

Business secretary Kemi Badenoch is said to have warned the PM over the Rwanda bill (PA)

No 10 refused to comment on any conversations with Mr Anderson or cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch, who is said to have warned the PM’s team that the Rwanda bill does not go far enough.

In an apparent bid to keep right-wingers happy, the Tory leader talked up his willingness to use the bill to ignore any injunctions from the ECHR on deportation flights.

Mr Sunak told GB News: “If you’re asking me … are there circumstances in which I’m prepared to ignore those rule 39s [ECHR injunctions]? Then yes, of course there are.”

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said the YouGov poll shows why the party should bring back Boris Johnson. “Get Boris into a seat and out campaigning or consign us to socialism forevermore,” she said on Twittter/X.

And Zac Goldsmith, another staunch ally of Mr Johnson, added sarcastically: “Thank God for those clever-clog ‘Tory grandees’ who got rid of Boris … Genius.”

But Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff at No 10, fired back: “The party was on course to lose under Johnson. By the time Sunak took over, the situation was probably irrecoverable.”

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