UK Politics: With Tories at rock-bottom, Sunak could face a confidence vote

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak is leading the Tories towards electoral oblivion

With the Tories projected to suffer an electoral massacre next year and Rishi Sunak failing to move the needle, Paul Krishnamurty says he could soon face a leadership challenge...

  • Autumn Statement fails to shift polls

  • Enemies have incentive to remove Sunak now

  • Braverman positioning continues

One week ago, the government released the Autumn Statement - widely seen as the opening shots of the general election campaign. Indeed, the obvious politics behind it sparked a gamble on an Election Date between Apr-June 2024 into 3.55/2. Whilst that market remains largely a guessing game, the main ones look increasingly fixed.

In our market to win Most Seats, Labour remain rock-solid favourites at 1.162/13, equivalent to an 86% chance. For an Overall Majority, they are at 1.364/11 (73%).

Turnaround looks ever less likely

There have been plenty of historic turnarounds during the final months before a general election and bettors searching for trading value will doubtless point to Keir Starmer's ordinary ratings and potential flakiness of Labour's lead, as their agenda comes under greater scrutiny. I cannot, however, endorse any bet on the Tories as things stand.

The state of play looks remarkably fixed. The Tories haven't recorded 30% in 47 opinion polls since that catastrophic October night when losing two ultra safe-seats in by-elections. There have been 168 polls since they polled 31%. To put those numbers in perspective, they scored 31% at the 1997 general election - their worst ever result, reduced to 165 seats, 253 behind Labour.

New MRP projects historic low

We have a new MRP projection from Survation today. It shows the Tories winning just 149 seats and I suspect that tally may be inflated, because the Lib Dems seem likely to fare much better, at Tory expense.

Beyond the numbers, there is little to suggest a comeback. The Autumn Statement was competently delivered and spun, boasting about falling inflation and handing out a generous tax cut to 27M people. But the reality from OBR forecasts, of the highest tax burden since WW2 and further squeezes to living standards on the horizon, is the bigger story.

Energy, mortgage costs to worsen matters

In addition to energy prices, rising interest rates are a ticking timebomb that could worsen the government's already grim position. As Patrick English from Yougov explains in great detail here, these rising mortgage costs disproportionately affect Tory-held seats in the so-called 'Blue Wall'. With each passing month, tens of thousands of voters come off cheaper fixed-rate deals.

This is a strong argument for an early election. Matters will only get worse. The government's relatively light legislative agenda announced in the King's Speech also points that way. In any case, what could the government achieve in the five months between May and October, including a long parliamentary recess?

I recommended a bet on April-June on these pages at 6.05/1 (17%) several months ago and am happy to stick with it. In addition to the above reasons, I believe Rishi Sunak understands the potential nightmare of the UK election running concurrently with the US election, amid well-publicised assaults on democracy by Donald Trump. Nigel Farage is sure to back Trump and Liz Truss has got her endorsement in early. Many Tories are sure to follow.

Could Sunak be removed pre-election?

This assumes Sunak will still be in charge. Our market rates him over 80% likely to lead the Tories into the election, and dismisses a Confidence Vote being called as just 25% likely. I think the latter at least is an underestimate.

Sunak is proving totally ineffectual. When chosen, he could point to being more popular than his party. No longer. Sunak is not short of enemies and critics from within. Truly awful moments like this week's humiliation at PMQs must increase plotting among MPs.

A 'Redwood Moment' remains possible

Back in May, as the 'National Conservatism' Conference effectively declared war on mainstream conservatism, I wrote in Politics Live about the possibility of a 'Redwood Moment'. This refers to Tory backbencher John Redwood's challenge to John Major in 1995. It was always doomed to fail, but set up a leadership bid after they lost the election and made him a standard bearer for the Eurosceptic faction.

It has been very obvious from even before her sacking that Suella Braverman is positioning herself. On Monday, the Telegraph claimed to have seen a copy of an agreement between her and Sunak to introduce tougher immigration policies. With net migration running at record levels, do not underestimate how much pressure Tory MPs are under from activists and voters on this issue.

Also on Monday, Sunak sparked a row with Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the Elgin Marbles. I smell a distraction. Whilst the row has been widely mocked and isn't going to move the needle, it did capture airtime. Just as the shock return of David Cameron did a few weeks ago. This type of short-term news distraction seems about the sum of Sunak's abilities right now.

The arguments against challenging or removing Sunak are obvious. It will make them look even more divided and ridiculous to install a fourth leader in the same parliament. There's no evidence that an alternative would fare any better.

But on the other hand, Tory MPs are famous for ruthlessly ditching unpopular leaders and they have the mechanism to do so. I'm sure that, if desired, Sunak's enemies could muster to send the required letters to the 1922 Committee.

Whether it occurs or not, I reckon the odds about a Confidence Vote are too high. Take the 5.04/1 (25%) now and let's reconsider if and when speculation, and drama, arrives.

Read more Politics content here, follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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