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Tory MPs turn on Sunak as they lose hope of avoiding historic defeat

Rishi Sunak was tonight battling to keep the Conservatives united after two bruising by-election defeats prompted despair among MPs and calls for a change in direction for the Government.

Ministers are privately pushing for a more positive message that relies less on Labour attacks – while the right of the Tory party accuses Mr Sunak of failing to give voters a reason to back him.

Labour won the former Tory strongholds of Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire with near-record swings which pollsters said were comparable to the results achieved by Tony Blair before the 1997 election.

The Liberal Democrats and Reform UK also appeared to take support off the Conservatives in the two contests, triggered by the resignation of Boris Johnson’s close allies Chris Pincher and Nadine Dorries.

Speaking from his two-day tour of the Middle East, Mr Sunak said: “It is important to remember the context — mid-term elections are always difficult for incumbent governments. And of course there are also local factors at play here.

“I’m committed to delivering on the priorities of the British people. That is why we’re going to keep on with halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping the boats. But also over the past month, I’ve set out some long-term decisions that will change our country for the better.”

Newly elected Labour MP Sarah Edwards with party leader Sir Keir Starmer at Tamworth Football Club, after winning the Tamworth by-election. Picture date: Friday October 20, 2023. PA Photo. The seat was vacated following the resignation of Conservative MP Chris Pincher on September 7. See PA story POLITICS ByElection. Photo credit should read: Jacob King/PA Wire
Newly elected Labour MP Sarah Edwards with party leader Sir Keir Starmer at Tamworth Football Club, after winning the Tamworth by-election. (Photo: PA)

Ministers scrambled to shore up support after Conservative MPs warned the results put the party on track for a heavy defeat at the general election expected next year. One warned: “The party needs to unite behind the Prime Minister.”

But another minister said: “The PM needs to keep being calm but also needs to express what the positive reason for voting Tory at the general election is. Not just negative politics.”

Conservative strategists are adamant that Sir Keir Starmer remains unpopular with the public and insist that Mr Sunak’s “change” argument has a chance of breaking through.

If Labour achieved a nationwide swing on the same scale as those seen in Tamworth and Mid Beds, the Tories would be left with fewer than 100 seats at a general election.

But Conservative insiders believe that the result was primarily due to their usual voters declining to turn out at the polls, rather than deciding to back Labour. A source told i: “What did we learn? Absolutely nothing. Polls show retention at around 60 per cent and minimal switching, which is exactly what happened. There is no great meaning to be taken from it.”

A member of Mr Sunak’s inner circle added: “There is no love for Labour, there is no swell of support for Keir Starmer to become Prime Minister – this is not 97, he is not Tony Blair. The contrast between the two leaders is clear. I can’t remember the last time Starmer took a stand on anything. Rishi is getting things done while Starmer just kind of nods along.”

Sir Keir appeared to compare himself to the last Labour leader who won an election, saying: “What I do want to do is follow in the footsteps of a leader of our party who took us from opposition into power.” But a member of his inner circle warned: “Let’s not forget this is not job done or anything close to it. We still need a swing bigger than Tony Blair’s.”

MPs on the right of the Conservative party claimed that Mr Sunak needed to adopt a more radical policy agenda. One ally of Mr Johnson and Liz Truss said: “With the King’s Speech and the autumn statement coming up, these are two big moments to set the agenda for the final year of this Parliament and to give voters a reason to vote Conservative. At the moment, not a great deal of those appear to be on offer.”

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