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PM issues call to arms to Tory MPs and says 2024 will see economy ‘bounce back’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street, London, to attend Prime Minister’s Questions at the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street, London, to attend Prime Minister’s Questions at the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

A defiant Rishi Sunak insisted he would still be Prime Minister after May’s local elections as he dismissed “Westminster gossip” about Tory leadership plots and sought to rally his party behind him.

Mr Sunak issued a call to arms to Conservative MPs in Parliament as he battled to assert his authority following days of speculation about his position.

And in a BBC interview he insisted his plan for the country was working and “2024 will prove to be the year that the economy bounces back”.

Speculation is rife that rebel Tories are lining up potential successors should Mr Sunak face a no-confidence test before a general election.

Heavy defeats for the Conservatives in the local elections could heap pressure on Mr Sunak amid dire opinion poll ratings that show Labour enjoying a lead of around 20 points.

But the Prime Minister said he would still be in No 10 after May because “the things that we are doing are making a difference” and Tory MPs sought to play down reports of dissent following a meeting in Westminster on Wednesday.

Asked whether he would be in Downing Street following the local elections, he told the BBC: “Yes. Because the things that we’re doing are making a difference, right.

“There’ll always be people focused on what’s happening at Westminster. But that’s not, when I go around the country every week talking to people, that’s not what they talk to me about.

“What they are talking to me about is making sure that inflation continues to come down, that energy bills and mortgage rates are falling, that we are cutting taxes so that their family have more money in their bank accounts every month… That’s what we’re delivering on the economy.”

Mr Sunak was buoyed by a fall in inflation to 3.4% in February, down from 4% in January, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt hinting the improved economic picture could result in pre-election tax cuts and reductions in interest rates.

The Prime Minister said: “I do believe that at the start of this year we have turned a corner after the shocks of the past few years and we are in a new economic moment and 2024 will prove to be the year that the economy bounces back.”

ECONOMY Inflation
(PA Graphics)

He sought to play down concerns about reports of a backbench plot to oust him as Conservative leader in the interview, insisting that his focus was on the country at large.

“Look, these things don’t infuriate me because you know what, fundamentally, I’m just not interested in Westminster gossip,” the PM said.

“It’s just that is not what’s important. What’s important is the future of our country, and people’s financial security and the peace of mind that they rightly deserve.”

In Westminster, Mr Sunak was greeted by Tory MPs banging the tables in support as he arrived at a meeting of the 1922 Committee, where he was expected to stress the need for unity ahead of the May 2 local elections.

Conservative backbenchers filing out of the closed-doors session after the Prime Minister’s rallying speech sought to stress broad support for the leader.

However, it is understood Mr Sunak was challenged by former party chairman Jake Berry at the meeting over media briefings against him which he alleged had originated from No 10.

Mr Berry stressed he had not submitted a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister but said he had raised the issue with the whips and received no reply.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Gullis hit out at what he described as a “tiny minority” of critics and dismissed suggestions of friction at the meeting, claiming there was “not a single dissenting voice” in the room.

“I certainly would call out those idiots for being idiots because essentially all they’re doing is guaranteeing a Labour government and that’s the last thing I want,” he told reporters.

The mood in the tea rooms this week suggested Tory MPs were “very upset about the briefings over the weekend” and “it’s distracting from their records, it’s distracting from our messaging”, he said.

(PA Graphics)

Asked about the exchange between Mr Berry and the PM, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North said: “Jake made it very clear that he’s behind the Prime Minister, that he’s absolutely committed to supporting the Prime Minister.

“He’s not put a letter in, he thinks a leadership change would be nuts.”

On what the PM’s general message had been, he said: “Here’s a long list of things that we’ve delivered. Here’s a long list of successes that we’ve had. And the tiny minority that’s seeking to continually undermine and brief against him – you’re not just briefing against him and hurting him, you’re hurting everyone in the parliamentary party, and therefore it’s time to grow and actually let’s pull together.”

One Tory MP echoed Mr Gullis’s show of support for the PM, saying “it was the best we’ve seen him for a while” while another said the “roof nearly went off” as those at the meeting cheered and banged tables.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary had said the session would focus on the need to pull together “to make sure Labour don’t do… to Britain, what they have done to Birmingham”.

The Conservative Party leader has looked to make hay with the situation facing England’s second city, saying at Prime Minister’s Questions that “taxes are going up by 21%” and that “services are being cut” as the local authority looks to balance its books.

The Labour-run city council in Birmingham declared itself effectively bankrupt in September after identifying equal pay liabilities estimated at £760 million.

It is now said to be on a “narrow path to financial sustainability”, dependent on budget cuts.

Rebels have reportedly talked up the prospect of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt or security minister Tom Tugendhat, both of whom have previously featured in Tory leadership races, replacing Mr Sunak should he face a confidence vote.

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt is being reportedly tipped as a unity candidate to replace Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Ms Mordaunt is said to be being considered as a unity candidate who could be acceptable to both the Tory right and moderates if there is a last-ditch change in leaders before the election.

She told reporters on Tuesday she was “getting on with my job”.

Downing Street refused to say whether the Prime Minister had held talks with Ms Mordaunt since the reports first emerged over the weekend.

(PA Graphics)

The Prime Minister’s press secretary was asked by reporters if he was disappointed the Commons Leader had not firmly denied being part of a plot to replace him.

She replied: “What the Prime Minister wants is all of his Cabinet ministers and the wider Conservative team to focus on delivering for the country.”

The Tories will be hoping the economic shift highlighted by Mr Sunak will boost its poor poll ratings, with Labour enjoying a sustained double-digit lead.

A further 2p cut in national insurance at the Budget failed to move the dial before the blows of former deputy party chairman Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform UK and a Tory donor racism row brought further unwanted headlines for Mr Sunak’s administration.

Labour hit back at Mr Sunak and No 10’s criticism of the opposition party’s record at local and regional authority level.

A party spokesman said: “What we are seeing is the result of the Government having massively underfunded local government as a whole and the responsibilities that local authorities have been left with in that situation to try and make the best of a very difficult situation.”

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth pointed to Budget analysis by the Resolution Foundation suggesting this Parliament is the first in modern history to see a drop in living standards as he rubbished the PM’s claims the economic picture had brightened.

“After 14 long years, the Prime Minister has lost all economic credibility, lost control of his MPs and might very well be losing his grip on reality if he thinks we have turned a corner,” he said.