It’s the week of the local elections and the most pivotal of Rishi Sunak’s premiership to date. It’s been clear for some time now that the Prime Minister’s critics will attempt to rally MPs to turn on Sunak if the party faces a drubbing in Thursday’s vote. This is more than the odd unhappy MP: a group of ragtag plotters – including one-time donors and former government advisers – is agitating from outside parliament to destabilise Sunak.

Most MPs believe that Sunak ought to be able to hold on

Downing Street has used the past few days to try to shore up Sunak with a series of party-friendly announcements, including a boost to defence spending, a benefits cracking down and the passing of the Safety of Rwanda bill into law. Less helpful for Sunak is the announcement that one of his MPs, Dan Poulter, has defected to Labour. However, as Mr Steerpike’s report from the Tory WhatsApp group shows, few Conservatives are crying into their cornflakes over Poulter’s departure and questions are now being asked of Labour’s decision to recruit him.

In a bid to up the pressure on Sunak ahead of Thursday, the plotters have released a ‘policy blitz outline’ which aims to ‘get the managerialist barnacles off the boat’. It reads as follows:

End the junior doctors pay dispute with a 10-12 per cent offer (it’s currently at 8.8 per cent)
On legal migration, announce further cuts to numbers, scrap the much-abused graduate route (government currently kicking can down the road on it) and introduce tougher measures to stop the boats (set up genuine election fight)
⁠Defence spending at 3 per cent and hit the target by 2027
Flip the sentencing bill with measures to lock up prolific offenders. Build rapid detention cells to increase capacity
⁠Slash the benefits bill to ensure work pays and particularly target cuts to payments where depression/anxiety are (a) cause of inactivity

It is being billed as a plan for 100 days of a new leader before they go to the polls. As one Tory rebel puts it:

‘No more tinkering, dithering or managerialism – these are policies that can be introduced in a few months and then go to the country for people to make a decision. We’ve got to be clear and bold in our plan, and with the right messenger, to have any chance of winning otherwise it could be two or three terms of Labour’.

Two of the above policies (defence and benefits) are similar to recent announcements by Sunak though go slightly further. Meanwhile, the junior doctor demands are so high it is unclear a 10-12 per cent offer would end the strikes.

The plotters’ policies are also rather similar to what I reported in February for The Spectator on the plotters’ plans. As was the case then, this group still doesn’t have a confirmed candidate or challenger to Sunak. The ongoing rumour is that House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt is the most likely challenger on the grounds that she would probably lose her seat on the current polling so may feel the need to move before the election.

However, Mordaunt has been out this weekend calling on MPs to support Sunak. The other candidate being talked up is Robert Jenrick, who quit the Home Office over the Rwanda bill. This policy platform seems to fit his thinking and recent statements more easily than Mordaunt.

As things stand, most MPs believe that Sunak ought to be able to hold on. He has steadied the ship after one hellish week in which Lee Anderson defected to Reform and there was a racism row over a donor. However, it’s still not impossible that events overtake. In No. 10 and the party, Ben Houchen staying on as Tees Valley Mayor is viewed as key to Sunak’s premiership. As last year’s local council results showed, it’s one thing to talk about bad results being ‘priced in’. Once they arrive, it is hard to predict how MPs months away from an election will respond.

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