Prime minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure like never before and, lo, the Sundays were full of stories of intrigue and plotting in Conservative ranks as MPs consider — if you believe those write-ups — a further regicidal spasm.
To the largest part of SW1 and the country beyond, the news that sets of Conservative MPs are plotting to enstool a sixth prime minister since 2010 will be seen, at best, as farcical. The annual appearance of former PM Liz Truss at the Cenotaph is already the source of considerable mockery. That the lineage of Conservative PMs could stretch one person longer before the next election would be viewed with very real disdain, both within and without the Westminster bubble.
But the reports of anti-Sunak plotting cannot be dismissed outright. Indeed, the rumours in yesterday’s newspapers came after Lord Frost penned an article for the Telegraph on Friday, which subtly suggested that Conservative MPs should now reconcile themselves to a regicidal future.
MPs should not “resign themselves to the coming electoral car crash”, he counselled colleagues, adding: “If there is anything to be done to get us on a better path and increase our chances of winning, then I believe it must be done”.
Nor is the former chief Brexit negotiator the only senior Conservative to hint that a change of leadership might be needed. In fact, in rather less coded terms than Frost, Dame Andrea Jenkyns MP last month publicised her letter to 1922 committee chair Sir Graham Brady, which called overtly for a vote of no confidence in the PM.
“Dear Sir Graham”, she began: “Enough is enough. If it wasn’t bad enough that we have a party leader that the party members rejected, the polls demonstrate that the public reject him, and I am in full agreement. It is time for Rishi Sunak to go”.
Jenkyns later revealed six more letters of no confidence were in the process of being submitted against Rishi Sunak — some weeks before the current bout of Conservative infighting over the Rwanda bill. For a leadership contest to be triggered, let it be known, Sir Graham needs to receive a full 53 anti-Sunak missives.
Still, the reaction to Jenkyns’ letter on X (formerly Twitter) probably illustrated just how isolated the former junior minister’s views are in the Conservative Party. “Where can we submit a letter of no confidence in the Pantomime Dame?”, senior MP Tim Loughton retorted.
But the pro-Sunak messaging has become rather less cool and quizzical in recent days — a development which might itself be interpreted as suggesting anti-Sunak manoeuvres are, indeed, underway.
In fact, chair of the One Nation group of Conservative MPs Damian Green described some of his colleagues on Sunday as “mad or malicious or both” over such rumours. And Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former party leader and far from a loyal Sunak apparatchik, pleaded with his colleagues to “stop shouting” and behave “in a reasonable way” in their respective rebellions.
So, choose your preferred helping of salt, and peruse the plots that may or may not now be in motion. Be warned: some of these would even make Nadine Dorries — that esteemed chronicler of shadowy cabals — blush.
Sir Simon Clarke, the Trussite’s choice
But he is also, according to a report in Bloomberg published over the weekend, the axis upon which a burgeoning Trussite revival project swings.
Bloomberg reports that allies of the former prime minister — presumably drawn from 60-strong Conservative Growth Group of Trussite MPs — have already met to discuss contingencies and the possibility of “ousting” Rishi Sunak in the wake of his Rwanda tumult. They are said to be considering letters of no confidence, in the hope of triggering a leadership contest and the eventual enstooling of Sir Simon in No 10.
The former levelling up secretary has, of course, proved to be a perennial rebel under Rishi Sunak, calling recently for an “urgent change of approach” on legal migration. He also suggested last month that any attempt to curb further legal migration should be considered “a confidence issue in [Rishi Sunak’s] judgement as PM and as leader of the Conservative Party”.
Still, Bloomberg’s story closed:
Truss’s spokesman said she’s not plotting, while Clarke told Bloomberg he wants the government to succeed.
The ‘Bring Back Boris’ brigade is back
Perhaps it was inevitable that talk of a future leadership challenge to Rishi Sunak would soon become swelled with “Bring Back Boris” arguments from the usuals suspects. And so it has come to pass.
On Sunday, The Times newspaper reported that “more than a dozen” Red Wall Conservative MPs are regretting supporting calls for Boris Johnson to resign in the summer of 2022, with some “pining” for his return. Included among the regretful red wallers are the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson and minister Gareth Bacon, The Times outlines.
Meanwhile, a Mail on Sunday exclusive held that “multiple Conservative MPs” have discussed plans to bring Johnson back, in what is being viewed as the only way to avoid the party from being wiped out at the election.
“Boris could RETURN as Prime Minister in astonishing plan being hatched by disgruntled Conservative MPs”, the Mail report claimed. It also revealed that an “Advent calendar of s**t” was being planned to further destabilise Sunak, preparing the ground for the pretender’s much-heralded return.
It begs the question: how would Johnson, just recently reprimanded by former colleagues on the privileges committee, return as prime minister?
Well, some of the former PM’s supporters have told the Mail that an MP could quit a safe seat before the election to make way for Johnson — something, they suggested, Conservative high command would be unable to block.
And one MP and Johnson ally later told to the paper that the former prime minister could stand in a forthcoming by-election, including in Wellingborough, where a petition is underway to decide whether incumbent MP Peter Bone should lose his seat.
Still, a Johnson spokesperson has told both the Mail (which, remember, employs him as a columnist) and The Times that their man is too busy finishing his book on Shakespeare to engage in any anti-Sunak plotting.
Priti for PM?
So if “bringing back Boris” is currently a non-starter, the Mail reports that former home secretary Priti Patel could emerge as Sunak’s chosen replacement among Johnson loyalists — potentially acting as a caretaker PM, keeping the UK’s seat of power warm while the pretender in question plots his path back to parliament.
What is more: the Mail suggests the Conservative Party could further stave off the threat posed by Reform UK on the right — while Johnson lays in wait — by elevating Nigel Farage, the party’s honorary president, and Richard Tice, its leader, to the Lords and ministerial office.
Arise, Lord Farage
In fact, elevating Nigel Farage to the Lords now features centrally amid the rumbling rumours of anti-Sunak plotting.
Fresh from the I’m a Celeb jungle, it is suggested that Farage could pose a serious threat to the Conservative Party if he throws his weight behind the Reform Party in a future election. Indeed, as one Conservative MP told the Mail: “When Farage comes back he’s going to be all over the airwaves, and he’s going to have us in his sights”.
And so the suggestion to ennoble Farage flows, with another MP telling the Mail: “Reform are going to kill us, so we have to buy Farage off. The plan is we get him into the Lords, give him some brief like we did with Cameron – maybe even Home Secretary – then go to the country with the dream team”.
This “dream team”, it is held, would be composed of both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. “It may not be enough to win”, the previously quoted MP confided to the Mail, “but it would definitely re-energise our base, shake up the debate and give Starmer something to think about”.
One potential roadblock here is that Richard Tice, Reform’s leader, has consistently suggested he wants no part to play in any Conservative pact. There is “no way on earth we are doing a deal with Toxic Tories”, he told the newspaper.
But, critically, Nigel Farage is rather more coy when presented with the prospect. Speaking to GB News this morning, the former UKIP leader was asked about whether he could rejoin the Conservative a form an alliance with Johnson. He said: “Never say never. I can’t predict right now what will happen. What I do think is that our country is being appallingly led. There is no proper opposition policy and that we’re living through a population crisis.
“That really has little to do with the small boats, offensive though that is. It is due to the fact that over 17million people voted for lower immigration, voted for more border controls”.
Jonathan Gullis, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North and member of the New Conservatives, is someone who has publicly called for Nigel Farage to join the Conservative Party and be granted a peerage.
“I think he would take no nonsense; he would take no prisoners. He would call out the civil service for what they are at times, which are blockers to actual government policy and make sure that we deliver on the priorities of the British public”, he told GB News.
Call for Dave
But what if “Bring Back Boris” bubble bursts, with Johnson unable to find a route back to parliament and therefore No 10?
Fortunately, another former prime minister is being touted as a potential coup leader: step up Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. As a Times article read on Sunday:
[A Conservative source] said it would be easier to install Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, the foreign secretary, as he has a winning record and is already in the House of Lords. Constitutionally the King could accept Cameron as prime minister so long as he agreed to stand for a Commons seat at an imminent general election
Still — Sunak seems safe, for now
Ultimately, the likelihood of a novel entitled The Plot: The Political Assassination of Rishi Sunak gracing the shelves of a bookshop near you — penned by some undying loyalist of the prime minister — remains, at this stage, unlikely.
MPs of all stripes are well aware that a further act of Conservative regicide would be mocked widely, both in SW1 and the country at large. As Labour shadow minister Sir Chris Bryant reacted on X (formerly Twitter) in response to the Lord Cameron rumours: “If this is really the state of the latest Tory plot, they’ve well and truly lost it”.
In the end, that Westminster is awash with such rumours — extending from the outlandish (Clarke) to the even more outlandish (Cameron) — is probably highly revealing both of the prime minister’s present political problems and those of the Conservative Party as a whole.
In this regard, if some MPs are now intent on concocting a intra-party psychodrama in a bid to destabilise Rishi Sunak, stoking speculation of fanciful pro-Boris plots to sympathetic media outlets would certainly be one way to do it.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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