Rishi Sunak Back in Hot Seat After Parliamentary Election Losses


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain could find himself in a familiar predicament after his Conservative Party went down to defeat in parliamentary elections in two districts on Thursday: isolated, embattled and the subject of whispered plotting by restive Tories bent on pushing him out for a new leader.

The crushing loss of two seats in once-reliable Conservative areas capped another dismal week for Mr. Sunak. Economic data confirmed on Thursday that Britain had fallen into recession at the end of last year, undermining one of the prime minister’s five core pledges — that he would recharge the country’s growth.

Yet the scheming against Mr. Sunak, analysts said, is no more likely to go anywhere than it has during his previous leadership crises. However desperate the political straits of the Conservatives, they would find it hard, at this late stage, to replace their languishing prime minister with someone else.

With the party divided between the centrists and those on the right, and a general election looming within months, the conditions for an internal party coup — of the kind that drove out the last two Conservative leaders, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson — are growing more difficult by the day, according to analysts.

Mr. Sunak could yet be purged like Mr. Johnson and Ms. Truss. But his more likely fate, these analysts said, is to be swept from office by the opposition Labour Party, which captured the two seats on Thursday resoundingly and has led the Conservatives by double-digit margins in national polls for more than a year.

“I wouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that he could be gone by the end of the month, but it seems to me quite unlikely,” Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said of Mr. Sunak. “I think most Tory members of Parliament are still persuaded that would make them look ridiculous.”

Support for the Conservatives never recovered from Ms. Truss’s calamitous 44-day stint as prime minister, which ended with her resignation after she had to reverse tax cuts that alarmed financial markets and caused interest rates to spike. But the party’s long swoon began during Mr. Johnson’s scandal-scarred tenure.

There were echoes of the Johnson era in the election in Wellingborough, a constituency in Northamptonshire, where the Tory member of Parliament, Peter Bone, was recalled by voters after a scandal involving bullying and sexual misconduct.

In the 2019 general election, the Conservatives won the seat by more than 18,000 votes. This time, voters chose the Labour candidate, Gen Kitchen, by a margin of 6,436 votes — the largest loss of votes that the Conservatives have suffered in a postwar by-election for a seat they were defending.

In the other election, in Kingswood, near Bristol, Labour won a Tory seat vacated by Chris Skidmore, an energy minister. He had resigned to protest the government’s plan to issue more licenses to extract oil and gas from the North Sea. The Conservatives had won the seat by more than 11,000 votes in 2019. This time, the Labour candidate, Damien Egan, took it by 2,501 votes.

While each race had its own peculiar characteristics, both reflected deep-seated voter fatigue with the Conservatives, who have been running the government for 14 years. Mr. Sunak did not bother to campaign in either constituency, attesting to the party’s low hopes for holding on to the seats.

Such elections, however, are often viewed as a harbinger of a party’s performance in general elections, and these defeats confirmed the ominous outlook for the Tories. With polls showing that hundreds of Tory lawmakers could lose their seats, the mood inside the party now verges on panic, according to officials.

That is why every fresh electoral setback stirs speculation that the Conservatives will turn against their leader. Even before Thursday’s vote, Mr. Sunak had added to those concerns with a series of political missteps.

In an interview with the TV host Piers Morgan, Mr. Sunak appeared to accept a bet of 1,000 pounds (about $1,260) that Britain would put asylum seekers on a plane to Rwanda before the next general election. Critics pounced on him for gambling on the lives of people who make crossings of the English Channel in small boats.

Then, Mr. Sunak came under fire for making a joke in the House of Commons about Labour’s position on transgender people. As Mr. Sunak spoke, the mother of Brianna Ghey, a transgender teenager who had been murdered, was visiting Parliament. Mr. Sunak repeatedly declined to apologize.

While Mr. Sunak inherited a warring party, an economy buffeted by the coronavirus pandemic, a health system in crisis and the war in Ukraine, analysts said these episodes revealed a troubling deficit in his political instincts.

“He’s not a particularly convincing politician, which is not entirely surprising given that his rise to the top was so rapid,” said Professor Bale, who has written several books about the Conservative Party.

To be sure, Mr. Sunak never presented himself as a glad-handing politician, but rather as a responsible steward of Britain’s economy after Ms. Truss. But having calmed the markets, he has found it difficult to develop policies to recharge Britain’s growth or reduce the red ink in its public finances.

“They’re neither stupid nor economically illiterate,” Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at Kings College London, said of Mr. Sunak and his chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt. “But they’ve essentially given up on trying to do anything but set short-term traps for the opposition.”

Mr. Sunak dug a deeper hole for himself with his five goals. In addition to restoring growth, he promised to cut the inflation rate in half, reduce public debt, stop the flow of boats across the channel, and cut waiting times at National Health Service hospitals. He has failed to achieve any of them except reducing inflation, for which the Bank of England arguably deserves much of the credit.

“He keeps promising to do things that aren’t possible to do in the time he has,” said Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “It just angers his base because it’s not deliverable, and they know it.”

Still, the process of ousting Mr. Sunak would be a challenge, even for a party famous for its ruthlessness in discarding unpopular leaders. Unless he agrees to step aside, which he shows no signs of doing, more than 50 Conservative lawmakers would have to turn against Mr. Sunak to force a vote of no confidence. Lawmakers can submit letters pressing for a contest in private; how many have done so is not known.

But very few have publicly called on the prime minister to quit. When Simon Clarke, a former minister, did so recently, he was quickly disavowed by his Tory colleagues, one of whom advised him to find a dark room, lie down and sort himself out. Lawmakers know that a leadership change would lay bare the party’s internal rifts unless a consensus emerged over a successor to Mr. Sunak.

That seems highly unlikely. Much of the agitation against Mr. Sunak has come from the right. Critics like David Frost, once an adviser to Mr. Johnson, have warned that the party is heading for defeat and that, if it does not act, “there will soon only be smoking rubble left,” as Mr. Frost put it.

The most prominent right-wing potential leadership contender is Kemi Badenoch, the trade secretary, who has insisted on her loyalty to Mr. Sunak even after news reports that she is a member of a WhatsApp group of Tory lawmakers called “Evil Plotters.” The hard-line former home secretary, Suella Braverman, whom Mr. Sunak fired from her job, is also mentioned as having leadership ambitions.

Yet the party’s centrists would probably balk at installing a polarizing figure in Downing Street before an election. A more likely compromise choice would be Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, whose profile soared when she took a conspicuous role in the coronation of King Charles III last year.

“Given the polling, it could be a last throw of the dice,” Professor Bale said. But, he added, “Even she would think it’s better to stick with Sunak and hope the economy has now finally hit the bottom and will be on the way up.”

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