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Sunak battles to keep premiership on track

Westminster dusk
By Jack Olins
27 February 2024
Public Affairs
conservative party

The Prime Minister has endured a challenging start to 2024 and will be hoping he can use next week’s budget as an opportunity to turn around the Conservatives’ fortunes and put his party on the front foot. He has been determined to focus on the economy this year and put it at the centre of his election campaign.

However, recent weeks have seen the Conservatives lose two by-elections, in Kingswood, where Labour overturned a majority of 11,220 and in Wellingborough, where the majority was 18,540.  The 28.5% swing in Wellingborough was the second biggest from the Tories to Labour in any post-war by-election.

This meant the Conservatives have now suffered ten by-election losses in this parliament, more than any other government since the 1960s. There is also likely to be another by-election on the horizon in Blackpool South after Scott Benton was suspended from parliament for 35 days for offering to lobby ministers for the gambling industry.

The Prime Minister has also faced a growing row over Islamophobia in the Conservative party in the past week. The former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, was suspended by the party last week for his comments on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, saying “I don't actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they've got control of Khan and they've got control of London, and they've got control of Starmer as well.” His suspension has increased rumours of a potential defection to the Reform Party.

His comments were in response to an article by Suella Braverman, former Home Secretary, who said “The truth is that the Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now.”

It is clear the Prime Minister would like to use the budget to have his government discussing the main issue he wants to focus on, the economy. However, the Prime Minister has tried to reset several times over the course of his premiership, most recently during the Conservative Party conference in October last year when he positioned his party as the party of a change despite being the fifth Conservative Prime Minister since 2010.

He also hoped last year’s Autumn Statement, in November, would be “an autumn statement for growth”, with tax cuts for business investment and to National Insurance contributions. However, this had limited impact on the public as the end of last year saw the Conservatives wrapped up in a row over immigration, leading to the resignation of Robert Jenrick as Immigration Minister in protest at the government’s Rwanda policy.

These moves have had little effect on the polls and Labour remain comfortably ahead of the Conservatives so the budget is one of Sunak’s last hopes to make a significant impact.

The Prime Minister has seemed unable to dictate the agenda as he would have wished during his time in office and recent weeks have shown no let up to this trend. Every by-election loss raises questions about his performance as Prime Minister and many of his MPs and rival sections of the party seem to be more focused on what the Conservative party will look like in opposition.