Rishi Sunak is safe even if Tories suffer big local election defeats, cabinet minister says

Rishi Sunak will be safe from any leadership challenge following the local election results, a cabinet minister has said, after the Government’s Rwanda scheme starts to take off.

Forecasts of today’s local elections suggest that the Conservatives could lose half of their council seats as well as key mayoral contests in Yorkshire and across the country.

It has been widely reported this week that Tory rebels could use a poor performance in this week’s elections as an excuse to oust the Prime Minister in order to turn around its poor polling ahead of a general election later this year.

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Yesterday, Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary who is viewed as one of the frontrunners to replace Mr Sunak were he to step down, said that his position is not under threat.

Business Secretary Kemi BadenochBusiness Secretary Kemi Badenoch
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch

She told Sky News: “I think there’s a lot of noise being made by people who want to get attention but the Prime Minister has the full backing of the Cabinet, he has my full backing.”

Ms Badenoch added that she felt that this will be the case even if the local election results are very poor, with many seats up for re-election on Thursday having been last contested in 2021 at the height of Boris Johnson’s popularity following the rollout of the Covid vaccine.

Much of the opposition within the Conservatives towards Mr Sunak has come from the right wing of the party, with many calling for the Government to go further on its immigration pledges, such as its Rwanda scheme.

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Yesterday it was revealed that the first migrants set to be reported to Rwanda had been detained, with the Home Office confirming that a series of operations have been carried out across the country.

However, Channel crossing figures suggested that numbers coming to the UK using small boats had hit a record high, with the Home Office facing questions over its ability to find thousands of people who had been earmarked for deportation.

Labour yesterday accused the Conservatives of continuing with an “tiny scheme at an extortionate cost” that has been pushed out ahead of the local elections.

In today’s elections a third of seats are up for grabs in Barnsley, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield and Hull.

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Mayoral contests will also be held for West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the Tees Valley, as well as York and North Yorkshire which will elect its first ever metro mayor.

In recent weeks it has been reported that many would-be Tory rebels see the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties, held by the Conservative’s Andy Street and Ben Houchen, as must-win for Mr Sunak if he were to avoid a challenge to his leadership.

Both mayoral races are closely fought, with a result expected for the Tees Valley around midday tomorrow, and the West Midlands announced on Saturday afternoon.

The York and North Yorkshire mayoral result will be announced tomorrow afternoon, with a potential upset on the cards for the area which covers the Prime Minister’s constituency of Richmond.

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The Blackpool South by-election will also take place tomorrow, with Labour “hopeful” of winning the seat following the resignation of Tory Scott Benton following a lobbying scandal.

Political scientist Professor Sir John Curtice told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that as the Tories and Labour brace for the elections “one side is looking for hope, and the other is looking for affirmation”.

He added: “For Rishi Sunak he is trying to give his party a glimmer of hope that maybe not all is lost for the general election that we are now all expecting to happen in the autumn.

“For Sir Keir Starmer, he is in a sense looking for affirmation of the message of the opinion polls that the Labour Party is indeed so far ahead, that it looks now like… Sir Keir Starmer is likely to be the next Prime Minister.”