Conservative MPs predicted on Saturday night further attacks on Rishi Sunak's leadership within days, accusing their own party of surrendering to Labor without putting up a real battle in two previously safe Tory seats where by-elections will take place. place this week.
MPs across the party complained that the losses at Wellingborough and Kingswood on Thursday had already been “priced in”, as one senior figure said defeatism had set in, with the party falling into a “spiral of the death “.
Ministers and MPs said they faced none of the normal requirements to travel to the two seats this weekend to secure last-minute votes, as is usual before elections partial. A Sunak ally said the election was deliberately timed during parliamentary recess to reduce the risk of anti-Sunak “chatter and plotting” in Westminster if the Tories lost.
But senior MPs said failing to properly contest the seats risked demoralizing a party already deflated in the run-up to the general election, and at a time when Labor was vulnerable after making a massive U-turn last week on its plans. green economies.
“The party didn’t really try,” said one former minister. “They expect defeats. [It’s] rather demoralizing. Another influential figure said of the by-elections: “They are part of a death spiral.”
In Wellingborough, the Conservatives are defending a majority of more than 18,000 votes while in Kingswood their majority was over 11,000 votes in the 2019 election.
With Tory morale at an all-time low, Sunak used an interview this weekend to defend the tax cuts, while insisting he was “ready to fight” despite the stubbornly large lead of the Labor Party in the polls.
He also claimed his plans for the economy were working, saying they were “going in the right direction” and “the future is going to be better.”
But economists expect data on whether the economy has gone through two successive quarters of negative growth – the definition of a recession – to be on a knife-edge when it is released this week.
One senior MP added that there was no indication the party thought it could retain both seats: “A number of people have pointed out that normally you are inundated with messages from the whips' office asking – and in some cases demanding – that you are leaving. in each by-election on at least three occasions. This didn't happen in either seat, which is pretty incredible.
“It’s going to be a tough week. There is the risk that the country will enter into recession and there is the risk that inflation will increase. Trouble is brewing for Rishi, I'm afraid.
Labor, meanwhile, was trying to downplay suggestions it would win easily in both by-elections, as it sought to maximize turnout. Chris Bryant, the Labor leader who is the “political leader” in Kingswood, said: “Everyone assumes that just because we've won a few by-elections recently, we're going to win here. Many people are undecided. We must fight for every vote, door by door.”
Conservative strategists say that instead of devoting resources to by-elections, they are prioritizing the party's general election campaign. Right-wing Conservatives are increasingly hopeful that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will cut taxes in the Budget, focusing on inheritance tax.
The party is also trying to coordinate attacks on Labour's economic policies. However, a report into Labor's tax on windfall profits from oil and gas companies, published on Saturday, appears to accept that it refers to a policy that Labor no longer implements.
“This costing of the policy was completed and signed on January 22, 2024,” it indicates. “Further announcements have since been made by the Labor Party which would impact the costs of this policy. »
Labor said the Tories had “cost someone’s politics, but it wasn’t Labour’s”.
The news comes amid early signs that Labour's huge U-turn on spending £28 billion a year on green investment has not dented the party's lead in the polls. The latest Opinium survey for Observer shows that Labour's lead stands at 18 points, an increase of 2 points compared to a fortnight ago. Keir Starmer is now 11 points ahead of who voters think would be the best prime minister.
The Conservative campaign was paralyzed in Wellingborough, where the local party insisted on choosing the partner of ousted Tory MP Peter Bone, who was removed after a watchdog found he had bullied a member of the staff and exposed his genitals to them, which Bone denies.
“It didn’t go well,” said a senior Conservative. “MPs would prefer that we had more resources to devote to their seats which they must defend in the general election. »
In Kingswood, south Gloucestershire, where Tory MP Chris Skidmore resigned over Sunak's plan for a new law that “promotes the production of new oil and gas”, Labor are also strong favorites 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 ridicule Starmer in the House of Commons over Labour's stance on transgender people, while the murdered teenager's mother, Brianna Ghey, watched from the public gallery.
Others were desperate for a political show in which Sunak used a whiteboard to explain his plans for the country. A departing MP said it had been a “very dark” week.