Tories in leadership chaos over ‘mad’ plot to replace Sunak with Mordaunt

Reports of an attempt to oust the prime minister before the general election came as controversies piled up around him

Archie Mitchell
Sunday 17 March 2024 13:43 GMT
Rishi Sunak rules out general election on 2 May

Rishi Sunak’s premiership is under threat from a chaotic plot of backbench Tory MPs who want to replace him with Penny Mordaunt before the general election.

With the Conservatives languishing on 24 per cent in the polls, jittery MPs from across the party are said to have met and held talks about “coronating” Ms Mordaunt as prime minister.

The desperate bid to shore up support would see the Conservatives impose their sixth prime minister on the country since the 2010 general election, and the third without going to the country.

But an ally of Ms Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, denied there was a plot to install her as Tory leader, describing the plans as “nonsense”.

Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt has not commented on the claims but allies suggested she was focusing on her ministerial role (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, Tory former minister Dame Andrea Jenkyns, who has publicly backed installing a new leader before the nation goes to the polls, denied that right-wing Tory MPs would unite behind Ms Mordaunt.

Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former business secretary, denounced the idea as “madness”.

Transport secretary Mark Harper told Sky News’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips that Mr Sunak “will take us into that election” and stressed that the government’s “plan is working” and he is “confident we will win”.

“I’m going to be supporting him all the way through, and I’m confident that my colleagues will,” he said.

Mr Harper also described reports that there could be a snap election in May as “nonsense”.

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said the Conservative Party is in turmoil, with MPs discussing whether Mr Sunak can even continue as PM.

He told Sky News: “This is not in the national interest any more. It is irresponsible. We need stability in this country.

“He could stabilise this by naming the date of a general election. Otherwise, I fear we may have a Tory leadership election ahead of a general election.”

With many Tories increasingly concerned about losing their seats at the election, reports in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph suggested MPs on the right of the party met moderates this week to discuss uniting behind Ms Mordaunt if the prime minister faces a no-confidence vote.

Pressure on the prime minister will only increase after 2 May, when the Conservatives could lose swathes of local council seats across the country.

It followed a difficult week for Mr Sunak, in which he came under fire over his handling of racist comments allegedly made by a major party donor and the defection of Lee Anderson – whom Mr Sunak had promoted to Tory deputy chairman – to the right-wing populist Reform UK party.

Ms Mordaunt, who was a contender in the party’s leadership race to replace Boris Johnson in 2022, has not commented on the claims but allies suggested she was focusing on her ministerial role.

Ms Jenkyns tweeted: “Interesting to hear lots of media reporting of centre-right Conservative MPs pushing for a certain leadership candidate to replace Rishi.

“Having spoken with lots of my colleagues, no one seems to have heard or been pushing for such a thing!”

Noise about Mr Sunak’s position grew louder in Westminster this week after Jeremy Hunt’s Budget failed to boost the Tories’ dire polling figures and No 10 struggled to deal with the fallout from Frank Hester’s remarks about MP Diane Abbott. Mr Sunak eventually condemned them as “racist” after 24 hours of prevarication, while still refusing to return the £10m the businessman has donated to the Tory party.

Rishi Sunak is bracing for a devastating set of local elections in May (PA Wire)

But a No 10 source said: “The PM is focused on delivering on his plan to build a brighter Britain.

“The plan is starting to work with inflation down, mortgages down, wages up, the economy forecast to grow and the boats down by a third. But there’s more to be done – that’s what the PM is concentrating on. In contrast, Sir Keir Starmer has no plan and would take us back to square one.”

The febrile mood within Mr Sunak’s ranks came as he ruled out holding a general election on 2 May to coincide with local elections, having previously indicated he would send the country to the polls in the latter half of 2024.

A growing band of Tory MPs have announced their exit from parliament, with armed forces minister James Heappey, ex-party chairman Sir Brandon Lewis and former prime minister Theresa May some of the most recent additions.

More than 60 Conservatives have so far said they do not plan to run, prompting Sir Ed Davey to accuse many of “running away from the Liberal Democrats because they know that we can beat them in those seats”.

Speaking to the PA news agency ahead of his party’s spring conference in York, the Lib Dem leader expressed optimism about nabbing Conservative constituencies “across the southwest of England and across the whole blue wall where it’s a Liberal Democrat-Conservative fight”.

“The response we’re getting is phenomenal. Lifelong Conservatives switching to the Liberal Democrats, which gives us great, great belief that we can beat many Conservative MPs whenever the election comes,” he said.

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