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Rishi Sunak’s allies have claimed that supporters of ex-home secretary Suella Braverman are running an “embarrassing” campaign to bring down the prime minister, at the end of another week of Tory infighting.
The claim has been strongly denied by Braverman’s supporters, who claim they are being falsely identified as being part of a “cabal” trying to orchestrate a leadership coup.
The prime minister has been buffeted by a rebellion over his Rwanda policy, a poll funded by Tory donors suggesting he is leading his party to electoral doom, and calls from a former cabinet minister for him to quit.
The swirling of plots, with fingers of suspicion being pointed variously at supporters of Braverman, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss has caused further damage to Sunak, whose personal poll ratings have recently nosedived.
One former minister who is backing Sunak said: “It’s all to do with personal ambition. It’s nothing to do with the party or even ideology. They are people mainly around Suella Braverman. It is a school for malcontents.”
Nigel Farage, who founded the Reform UK party which is challenging the Tories for rightwing votes, told the Financial Times: “They are in a terrible mess: a broad church without a religion.”
On Wednesday Will Dry, who worked for Sunak as a special adviser until November, said that he had quit Number 10 after becoming “steadily more dispirited” in his work.
He said that he had concluded that “the Conservatives are heading for the most almighty of defeats”. He added that if Farage returned to frontline politics “the Conservative party essentially won’t exist by Christmas”.
Nonetheless, prospects for a coup against Sunak receded this week when no Tory MP was prepared to follow Sir Simon Clarke, a former minister in Truss’s shortlived premiership, in calling for the prime minister to quit.
Sunak’s allies claim that Dry’s move into the anti-Sunak camp was leaked by former ministerial advisers to Braverman to give the false impression that the coup was gathering momentum.
“They dropped Will in it,” said one. “It’s embarrassing to be honest.” But an ally of Braverman said the claim was “completely false” and that Number 10 had itself leaked the story.
Braverman’s supporters say the prospects of a leadership coup before the general election are rapidly diminishing, not least because some critics of Sunak did not have “the guts” to move against the prime minister.
“The people of Britain don’t feel represented by politicians in government at the moment — that’s why they are drawn to someone like Suella,” said one, adding that Sunak’s team were spreading rumours about a “cabal” to deflect attention from the prime minister’s fading popularity.
Last week the Telegraph published a YouGov poll that suggested the Conservatives — currently trailing Labour by about 20 points in the polls — were heading for a 1997-style electoral wipeout.
The poll was funded by a group of anonymous Tory donors calling themselves the Conservative Britain Alliance, an equally mysterious body. Dry assisted in writing the questions for the poll, which industry experts estimated could have cost between £20,000-£40,000.
Some Conservatives have claimed the poll may have been paid for by Lord Peter Cruddas, a Johnson supporter and founder of online trading company CMC Markets, but he told the FT: “This has nothing to do with me. I haven’t given any donations to any political body or party for more than a year.”
A spokesman for Paul Marshall, a hedge fund boss and previous backer of the Brexit campaign and the Tory party, denied paying for the poll and said he had never previously heard of the Conservative Britain Alliance.
One person in the anti-Sunak camp claimed the poll was paid for by several donors who were not big names, adding that they had also used the 14,000 person survey to carry out “market research” questions which were not in the public domain.
YouGov said the poll had been commissioned by the anonymous donors but their point of contact was Lord David Frost, Johnson’s former Brexit minister, and another critic of Sunak.
Earlier this month 60 Tory MPs defied Sunak to vote to toughen up his Rwanda migration legislation but in the end only 11 voted against the bill at its crucial third reading in the Commons.
The discontent in the party poses a continuing danger to Sunak, who faces two perilous by-elections on February 15 and local elections in May; both polls could be flashpoints for further trouble.
The prime minister is attempting to get back on the front foot by publicising the recent cut in national insurance rates from 12 per cent to 10 per cent, which will appear in pay packets in the coming days.
“We have got a job to do,” said an ally of Sunak. “If other people want to spend their days sitting around in rooms causing mischief, that’s their lookout.”