Sunak braced for further right-wing rebellion after resignation call

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Allies of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are braced for more rebels in his Conservative party to publicly demand his exit, as rightwingers warned that defeats in two looming by-elections would deal another hammer blow to his authority.

Downing Street sought to minimise the impact of a devastating attack this week by former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke, who called on colleagues to oust Sunak to avoid a potential electoral “massacre” by the opposition Labour party at the next election, expected later this year.

Sunak also faces the launch of yet another grouping of Tory MPs on the party’s rebellious right flank, which is broadly demanding tougher policies on immigration and crime and tax cuts to counter sluggish growth.

His predecessor Liz Truss and former cabinet ministers Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ranil Jayawardena will launch the “Popular Conservatives” — a movement already dubbed the PopCons — on February 6.

“This is just one MP,” Sunak’s press secretary said on Wednesday of Clarke, dismissing him as a “known critic” while stressing that other Conservative MPs “disagree” with his view of the prime minister. She insisted that Sunak, in office only since October 2022 after the resignation of Truss, had not been distracted by the salvo and was focusing on delivering his policy priorities.

Senior Tory officials said Clarke and other prospective rebels were feeling the heat from their Tory colleagues, incandescent over the perceived disloyalty to Sunak. “The WhatsApp groups are on fire,” said one.

Privately, however, government insiders are on alert for fellow rebels to follow Clarke “over the top” in publicly calling on Sunak to quit, although they believe the rebellion has been contained for now. “There won’t be anybody unexpected,” said one.

Right-wing Tory insiders agreed there were likely to be more such attacks, but not immediately. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said one, adding that next month will see another flashpoint for Sunak’s leadership.

On February 15, voters will go to the polls in by-elections in two Tory-held seats: Wellingborough, a constituency in Northamptonshire where the Conservatives are defending a 18,540-vote majority, a 62 per cent vote share, and Kingswood in Gloucestershire, where they won a 11,220-vote majority, or 56 per cent of the votes, at the last election.

“If Sunak can’t hold Wellingborough, what’s the point?” asked one right-leaning official.

David Campbell-Bannerman, a former Tory MEP, agreed the results will be pored over by potential rebels. “A series of recent by-elections show Conservative voters are on strike — about 20,000 of them stayed home in each. I want to see a new party leader. Why? To convince our voters to turn out at the general election.”

Truss, who succeeded Boris Johnson as prime minister before herself being forced to resign after just 49 days in office, said she was excited about the PopCons, but told the Financial Times: “It’s not a faction, it’s an initiative.” Others with knowledge of the group insist it is designed to focus on policy, with a view to influencing the party’s manifesto, rather than personality.

In a bid to prove the group is not designed to attack Sunak, Clarke was removed from the launch event’s line-up following his intervention.

Clarke’s assault, delivered via an opinion article in the Daily Telegraph, followed the publication of an extensive poll — funded by secretive Tory donors — by the same newspaper a week earlier, which suggested the party is on track for an election wipeout on the scale of 1997 when Tony Blair’s Labour swept to power.

“You can’t overestimate the psychological impact that poll has had on Tory MPs,” said one minister. “Everyone has been asking each other — do you make it, do you keep your seat under the poll? It has focused minds.”

Senior Tories believe that donors loyal to Johnson are behind this opinion polling, which has been spun to suggest that the party must move to the right to head off a threat from Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has sought to capitalise on the latest drama engulfing the Tories, using prime minister’s questions in parliament on Wednesday to declare that Sunak was being “bullied” by Conservative MPs in a spectacle akin to a plotline from the soap opera Eastenders.

Starmer also launched a new line of attack on Sunak during PMQs, targeting his past life as a hedge fund manager and investment banker.

The Labour leader has become visibly unhappy about the frequency with which Tory MPs and right-wing newspapers have criticised his record as director of public prosecutions before he was elected to parliament.

He said Sunak had been “making millions betting on the misery of working people during the financial crisis”.

That, according to aides, was a reference to Sunak’s time at hedge fund TCI when it launched an activist campaign against the Dutch bank ABN Amro in 2007. Amro was subsequently bought up by RBS but left the UK bank vulnerable when the credit crunch struck — leading to a huge government bailout.

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