UK: Rishi Sunak faces mass exodus of MPs ahead of elections: Who are his Conservative challengers?

UK PM Rishi Sunak
Image Source : REUTERS UK PM Rishi Sunak

London: Ahead of Britain’s upcoming general election on July 4, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s problems are exacerbating as he is facing a mass exodus of senior Conservative MPs, who have opted to not stand for re-election as the embattled party is predicted to suffer its worst-ever defeat to the opposition Labour Party. A whopping 78 members of the Tories have quit the electoral race, further casting a shadow over Sunak’s popularity in the party and his prospects in the election.

Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom became the latest Tory frontliners to announce their decision to not stand for re-election in this summer’s polls. Gove’s announcement was anticipated among fears of strong anti-incumbency for the Conservative MPs after 14 years in power. Leadsom released her own letter shortly after, writing to Sunak about her decision to not stand for re-election.

“No one in politics is a conscript. We are volunteers who willingly choose our fate. And the chance to serve is wonderful. But there comes a moment when you know that it is time to leave. That a new generation should lead,” said Gove in his announcement on social media, speaking about the “toll office can take.” It puts the total number of sitting Tories saying they will not stand again at 78, beating the previous record of 72 from 1997, according to the Guardian.

Former prime minister Theresa May is also among the senior MPs stepping away, with former defence minister Ben Wallace already having announced his decision to leave frontline politics. Amid the exodus, Sunak is also under fire for taking a “day off” by stepping away from the campaign trail and spending the day at home in his constituency and in London, holding discussions with his closest advisers.

While one source was quoted as saying that the idea that Sunak was hoping to reset his campaign was “ridiculous”, another campaign operative claimed that “prime ministers don’t normally spend the first weekend of the campaign at home talking to their advisers”. On the other hand, Sunak’s Labour rival Keir Starmer is in full campaign swing planning to use the day at public events designed to focus on his argument that the Conservatives have damaged the economy.

Who are Sunak’s challengers from the Conservative Party?

It came as Labour’s lead fell by three points in the first YouGov opinion poll since Rishi Sunak called the snap summer general election on Wednesday. However, Labour is still in a much stronger position, leading by more than 20 points over the Conservatives. Issues over the economy, immigration and healthcare have caused significant damage to the Tories.

Sunak called early elections on July 4, months before he completed his three years in office and riding high on a last-minute economic boost that saw the UK exit recession and record better-than-expected performance in the first quarter of March. If he loses, the party will be split in which direction to take next and is most likely to replace him as the leader of the Tories.

There are a number of challengers who would replace him as the Conservative leader. Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the tightly-packed race between Liz Truss and Sunak, is rumoured to replace the 43-year-old British Indian leader, although she has denied this. Here’s a look at other challengers

Suella Braverman: Once considered close to the PM and playing a crucial role in his victory, Braverman was fired as the UK Home Secretary over her comments on pro-Palestinian protests. Braverman is a leading figure in the hard-right wing of the party and has vociferously pushed for the Rwanda deportation bill. She strongly lashed out at Sunak after her dismissal, accusing him of betraying the people and failing on key policies.

Penny Mordaunt: The Conservative MP has twice unsuccessfully stood for the party’s leadership, but has denied challenging Sunak so far, according to BBC. Several reports have indicated that Mordaunt is central to a plot to replace Sunak as the Prime Minister weeks before the election date was announced, due to fears that the party will suffer a landslide defeat.

Kemi Badenoch: The British Business Secretary has been seen as a fellow contender on the right of the party jostling for position with Braverman and Priti Patel. Popular with the party’s grassroots, she previously stood to be party leader in both contests in 2022. While media reports speculating about Sunak’s ouster have also named her, Badenoch has rubbished such rumours.

James Cleverly: The former foreign secretary when Sunak came to power in 2022, Cleverly was appointed Home Secretary after Braverman was sacked. The Guardian called him a “more weighty figure in the party”. a rare senior cabinet minister who has bridged the Boris Johnson and Sunak regimes. He is being talked about in moderate Tory circles as someone who could unify the party.

Priti Patel: The Indian-origin former Home Secretary was one of the most important traditional right-wing MPs during the Johnson era, who has since receded to the backbenches after Sunak came over. Patel is speculated to be a less hard-line alternative to Braverman if they were to go head-to-head, which could work to her advantage and unify the party.

Tom Tugendhat: The security minister is another centrist candidate after Mordaunt, and is a member of the liberal-leaning One Nation group. He was among those who received the highest satisfaction rating in the Cabinet league table of December 2023, according to Evening Standard. However, his influence seems to have declined since the early stages of Brexit, suggesting more right-leaning figures are heading the race.

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