UK PM Rishi Sunak’s woes prompt ministers to question whether he can hang on

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Since becoming prime minister 16 months ago, Rishi Sunak has had support from the vast majority of Conservative politicians who were convinced another change of leader would do far more political damage than keeping him. Some senior Tories are starting to wonder if that’s changing.

In recent days, Cabinet ministers have held private discussions exploring the possibility the party might be forced to replace Sunak before a UK election due later this year, according to people familiar with the matter. The question was whether a caretaker leader would help hold back the opposition Labour Party surge that many fear is coming, they said.

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Sunak’s office declined to comment.

The catalyst for the talks has been a series of political flaps that appeared to expose Sunak’s inability to make swift political judgments, including the rollout of new tax cut promises and a controversy over racist remarks allegedly said by a top Tory donor. The episode has coincided with a further decline in support, with one poll showing the Conservatives with their worst-ever rating.

Ministers involved in the talks remain supportive of Sunak and don’t want a leadership change now, the people said. No rivals appear to have enough support to mount a challenge, bolstering allies’ hopes the premier can last until an election he has said is likely to be held in the second half of 2024.

Still, the fact members of Sunak’s government are broaching the topic, even in private, suggests he may be entering a period of new peril. Major flashpoints loom, including potential court challenges to his plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda and local elections on May 2, in which the Tories fear heavy losses.

Besides trailing by more than 20 points to Labour in the polls, the Conservatives must also worry about the gaining Reform UK group founded by Nigel Farage. Some Tories argue a change may be necessary to the save the more than 300-year-old party’s status as the standard-bearer of Britain’s mainstream right.

The ministers worry the pressure on Sunak may become unsus-tainable. The uncertainty around him echoes the struggles all of his three immediate predecessors — Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss — faced in the months before handing over control of the ruling party and the government.

Some MPs suspect Downing Street is dangling the threat of a snap election in May over the party’s head, since most Tory lawmakers didn’t want to face voters now. Graham Brady, a senior Tory backbencher, has urged Sunak against calling a May election, a person familiar with the matter said.

Some MPs want Sunak to appoint a new political team, to provide more direction and to try to reverse the party’s slumping fortunes.

The wider party’s desire to avoid more leadership chaos has so far helped Sunak, who’s generally credited with restoring some normalcy to government. But his rapid policy U-turns — such vowing to shake up a “30-year status quo,” only to bring ex-premier David Cameron back into the fold as foreign secretary — have roiled Tories and failed to lift his poll numbers.

Internal unhappiness spread wider this week. First, Lee Anderson — an MP Sunak made deputy Tory chairman in an appeal to the right — defected to Reform UK in protest over his suspension from the parliamentary party over comments about London’s Muslim mayor. The next day, Sunak condemned alleged comments by the party’s largest donor, Frank Hester, as “racist” — even as he side-stepped questions about returning his £10 million ($12.8 million) of contributions.

That prompted awkward comparisons among some Tories with former premier Johnson’s defense of former aide Chris Pincher, amid allegations of sexual misconduct in 2022. In both cases, Tories felt burned when they followed the prime minister in defending a controversial figure only to be left exposed when the leader suddenly changed tack.

For now, Sunak appears protected by the disagreement among Tory rebels about who should lead. Contenders from different factions have emerged, including Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch on the right, and both House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt and Defense Secretary Grant Shapps from closer to the center.

Badenoch showed the contrast she offers to Sunak when she posted on social media that Hester’s reported remarks were “racist,” even as the premier was sidestepping such clarity. The premier issued a similar condemnation hours later.

If a candidate emerged who could take over without a full-blown leadership contest, Sunak would likely be removed, two senior ministers said. For now, many Tories are looking toward the local elections.

A similar battering to last year, when the party lost about 1,000 council seats, would make it difficult for Sunak to explain to his MPs why he should lead the party into the general election just a few months later, one minister said.

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