Rishi Sunak was criticized at PMQs for arguing Labour’s position on transgender people and the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey was in the gallery.
Photo: UK Parliament/Maria Unger/Reuters
Conservative MPs on Saturday night predicted fresh attacks on Rishi Sunak’s leadership within days, accusing his own party of surrendering to Labor without a real fight in two previously safe Tory seats where by-elections will be held this week.
MPs from across the party complained that losses in Wellingborough and Kingswood on Thursday had already “priced in”, as one senior figure said the shock had set in defeatism, and the party had entered a “death spiral”. .
Ministers and MPs said they did not face any of the usual demands to go to both seats this weekend to shore up last-minute votes as is usual before by-elections. One Sunak ally said the contests were deliberately timed during the parliamentary recess to reduce the chance of anti-Sunak “chatter and plotting” at Westminster if the Tories lost.
But senior MPs said not contesting the seats properly would risk deflating an already deflated party in the run-up to the general election, and at a time when Labor was in danger of making a huge U-turn last week over his green economic plans.
“The party didn’t really try,” said a former cabinet minister. “They expect to win. [It’s] rather disappointing.” Another person who influenced the by-elections said: “They are very expensive in the death spiral.”
In Wellingborough, the Tories are defending a majority of over 18,000 and in Kingswood, their majority was over 11,000 in the 2019 election.
Related: Rishi Sunak ‘up for the fight’ as Tories continue to slow in the polls
With Tory morale low, Sunak used an interview this weekend to defend tax cuts, while also insisting he was “up for the fight” despite Labour’s stubborn leadership.
He also insisted that his plans for the economy were working, saying that he was “pointing in the right direction” and that “the future will be better”.
But economists say they expect data on whether the economy has gone through two consecutive quarters of negative growth – the definition of a recession – to dominate when it is released this week.
A senior MP said there was no indication the party believed it could hold both seats: “Some people have said that you are usually inundated with messages from the Shepherd’s office asking – and in some cases – to you would be asked to go. to each by-election at least three times. That didn’t happen in either seat, which is pretty incredible.
“It’s going to be a tough week. You have the potential of the country going into recession and the potential of inflation going up. Trouble is coming for Rishi, I’m afraid.”
Meanwhile, Labor was trying to make suggestions that they will win easily in both by-elections, while trying to maximize the turnout. Chris Bryant, the Labor frontbencher who is a “political leader” in Kingswood, said: “Everyone is assuming that just because we’ve won a few by-elections recently, we’re going to win here. Many people are undecided. We have to fight for every vote, door to door.”
Tory strategists say that, rather than pouring resources into the by-elections, they are prioritizing the party’s general election campaign. The right-wing Conservatives are increasingly pinning their hopes on Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to cut tax in the budget, targeting inheritance tax.
The party also wants to coordinate attacks on Labour’s economic policies. However, a report on Labour’s windfall tax on oil and gas companies, published on Saturday, appeared to point to a policy that Labor no longer held.
“The costing of this policy was completed and signed on January 22, 2024,” he says. “Since then the Labor party has made further announcements, which would affect the costs of this policy.”
Labor said the Tories had “cost somebody’s policy, but it’s not Labour’s policy”.
The news comes amid early signs that Labour’s massive U-turn on spending £28bn a year on green investment has not dented the party’s poll lead. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer it shows Labor leading by 18 points – up 2 points from two weeks ago. Keir Starmer now has an 11 point lead on which voters would make the best Prime Minister.
The Tory campaign has been disrupted in Wellingborough, where the local party insisted on electing embattled MP Peter Bone, who was sacked after a watchdog discovered he had bullied a member of staff and exposed his genitals to them, which Bone denies.
“It didn’t go well,” said one senior Tory. “MPs would prefer that we have more resources to put into the seats they need to defend in the general election.”
In Kingswood, South Gloucestershire, where Conservative MP Chris Skidmore has resigned from Sunak’s plan for a new law that “promotes new oil and gas production”, Labor is also the strong favorite in the seat.
Over the past week Tory MPs have been left frustrated by a series of errors from Sunak. Some complained about the Prime Minister’s decision to stand down from Starmer in the House of Commons about Labour’s stance on transgender people and the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey watched from the public gallery.
Others despaired of a political party broadcast in which Sunak used a whiteboard to explain his plans for the country. One outgoing MP said the week had been “very grim”.