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Kemi Badenoch tells Tory plotters to back Rishi Sunak

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Kemi Badenoch, the darling of Conservative activists and bookmakers’ favourite to become the next Tory leader, has told plotters trying to bring down Rishi Sunak to “stop messing around and get behind the leader”.

Some senior Tories suspect Badenoch’s supporters are among those agitating against the prime minister, but on Sunday the business secretary insisted that the plotters were “not my friends”.

Speculation has swirled at Westminster after a group of anonymous Tory donors funded a major poll suggesting that Sunak was leading his party towards an electoral wipeout at the general election expected this year.

The poll was followed shortly by former cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke calling for Sunak to quit and the revelation that former Downing Street adviser Will Dry had joined the anti-Sunak camp.

Rebel Tories have argued Badenoch or former home secretary Suella Braverman stand a better chance of saving Tory seats at the election than Sunak.

“The people who keep putting my name in there are not my friends — they don’t care about me,” Badenoch told Sky’s Trevor Phillips. “They don’t care about my family or what this would entail. They are just stirring.”

Badenoch stood unsuccessfully in the Tory leadership contest won by Liz Truss after Boris Johnson stood down in the summer of 2022. But she backed Sunak when Truss quit.

“I said the right person to lead the country was Rishi Sunak and I still believe that,” Badenoch said on Sunday.

The business secretary, who comes from the Eurosceptic right of the party, is the bookies’ favourite to succeed Sunak in a contest that most Tory MPs expect will come after the general election if the Conservatives lose.

Badenoch’s uncompromising stance on cultural issues has also endeared her to party activists. A regular survey by the ConservativeHome blog puts her well clear of her nearest rival, Leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt, on a plus 63 per cent approval rating. Sunak is on minus 25.

She did not rule out another tilt at the Tory leadership in future. “You never really know until you are in the moment,” Badenoch said. But she said that the vast majority of Conservative MPs want to rally behind Sunak.

Badenoch said she had rebuked Sir Simon Clarke, a former cabinet minister, for publicly calling for Sunak to go last week. “Quite frankly, we can’t just keep treating prime ministers as if they’re disposable,” she said.

Meanwhile Braverman’s allies deny plotting against Sunak and believe Downing Street is trying to blame them to divert attention from the prime minister’s falling popularity. A Redfield and Wilton Strategies poll this month put Sunak’s approval rating at a record low of -21.

Sunak’s team have been trying to discover the identity of the Tory donors who funded a YouGov mega-poll that suggested the party was heading for a 1997-style electoral rout. The rebel group call themselves the Conservative Britain Alliance.

Rebel Tory MPs admit there is little prospect of Sunak being toppled before an election, but the prime minister is braced for more infighting if the Tories lose two parliamentary by-elections next month as expected.

The contests in the Tory seats of Wellingborough and Kingswood are both seen as winnable by Labour, while Sunak is likely to face further pressure after a round of local elections in May.

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