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Is Rishi Sunak in trouble after the local elections?

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Rishi Sunak is under mounting pressure to sharpen his agenda after crushing local election losses on Thursday, but even critical Tory MPs said the immediate threat of a leadership challenge to the UK prime minister had receded.

Early returns on Friday suggested the Conservatives were on track for the worst result in council polls in 40 years, coupled with the loss of the Blackpool South parliamentary by-election on a 26-point swing to Labour.

However, in a gift to Downing Street on the morning after election day, one of Sunak’s most prominent Tory critics declared it was “unlikely” that right-wing rebels would be able to rally enough supporters to topple him.

Dame Andrea Jenkyns, the first Tory MP to publicly call for Sunak’s exit last November, told the BBC it was “looking unlikely” that the prime minister would face a vote of no confidence: 52 MPs have to submit letters to trigger such a vote.

But she warned that voters had delivered a message to Sunak at the ballot box on Thursday, saying: “Wake up, be Conservative, or we lose.”

She urged the prime minister to embrace “radical” Conservative policies, called on him to launch a cabinet reshuffle to bring in more members of the Tory right, and added: “We need to find a role for Boris [Johnson].”

Another Tory MP said that despite the bruising results so far, the majority of colleagues agreed it would be “mad to replace” Sunak.

Pointing to an unexpected win in Essex, the MP said: “We clung on in Harlow, where Keir Starmer made a big fuss but didn’t win. That proves that under Sunak some MPs will survive and it puts a pin in the plotters’ balloon to deflate it.”

Other rightwingers insisted it was too early to say whether the prime minister was safe, warning that many local and mayoral results remained to be announced over the weekend. Ahead of the polls, one of the small band of rebels had pointed out that a clear picture would only emerge on Monday.

The view was echoed by former cabinet minister Justine Greening, who said Sunak was still at risk. Asked by Sky News if the prime minister’s position was secure, she said: “No I don’t think he is. And I think a lot of MPs will take the bank holiday weekend to consider what these results mean in their own communities and for them personally.”

Kwasi Kwarteng, the former Tory chancellor, insisted he did not personally support any proposal to replace Sunak, but told LBC radio that some fellow MPs “might well think actually, we might as well roll the dice with a new leader”.

He added the local elections showed that “there’s no such thing really as a safe Tory seat anymore”.

However, in a crucial boost for Sunak, just after midday on Friday it was announced that Tory incumbent Lord Ben Houchen, the Conservative poster boy of levelling up, had won the Tees Valley mayoral race — albeit with a reduced majority.

Conservative officials also remained hopeful that the party would clinch the mayoral contest in the West Midlands and lose only narrowly in the capital.

“If Sunak wins two and brings London close, that’s a great result,” said one party insider, who argued the narrative would “flip” in the prime minister’s favour, thanks in part to expectation management.

Optimists within the party appealed to several silver linings amid the storm clouds, including the failure of Reform UK to beat the Tories into third place in Blackpool South and the backlash against Labour’s stance on Gaza in areas with high Muslim populations.

But other Tory MPs were in despair, pointing out that the election results announced so far broadly aligned with national opinion polls and confirmed the party was on track for a rout at the general election.

“It’s as bad as people think. But is it going to lead to a revolt [against Sunak]? Probably not. The stark reality, though, is this means we are on for a Labour government with a significant majority. It means a bunch of cabinet ministers are going to lose their seats,” said one party insider.

On a practical level, Tory councillors tend to be crucial to the ground war in a general election — delivering leaflets and leading canvassing exercises. As such, Conservative MPs fear that losing hundreds of them this week will translate into fewer, or less motivated, local campaigners ahead of the national poll.

While Sunak is now facing intense pressure from the right of his party to tack in their direction, ‘One Nation’ moderate Tories made clear they would be petitioning him to cleave to the centre ground with appealing, mainstream policies.

“The votes that we can retain or win back are not solely by going after Reform. Our message to him is — you will do as well as you possibly can by retaining the breadth of the church,” said one.

Another centrist MP anticipated that rival Tory factions will make their case through a raft of interventions and opinion articles in weekend newspapers in an open display of disunity. “It’s all shadow boxing. Ultimately, the narrative of the divided party will persist,” the MP said.

Influential Tory commentator Tim Montgomerie, the co-founder of the ConservativeHome website beloved of the party faithful, summarised the view of many MPs on X: “The evidence is clear: things are getting worse rather than better under Sunak. The Tories continue on the same path at their peril.”

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