Conservative MPs on Saturday night predicted fresh attacks on Rishi Sunak’s leadership within days, as they accused their own party of surrendering to Labour without a proper fight in two formerly safe Tory seats where byelections will be held this week.
MPs from across the party complained that losses in Wellingborough and Kingswood on Thursday had already been “priced in”, as one senior figure said defeatism had set in, with the party having descended into a “death spiral”.
Ministers and MPs said they had not faced any of the normal demands to go to the two seats this weekend to drum up last-minute votes as is customary before byelections. One Sunak ally said the contests had been deliberately timed in the parliamentary recess to reduce the chances of anti-Sunak “chatter and plotting” at Westminster if the Tories lost.
But senior MPs said not properly contesting the seats risked demoralising an already deflated party during the run-in to a general election, and at a time when Labour was vulnerable after performing a massive U-turn last week over its green economic plans.
“The party hasn’t really tried,” said a former cabinet minister. “They’re expecting defeats. [It’s] rather demoralising.” Another influential figure said of the byelections: “They are very much priced into the death spiral.”
In Wellingborough, the Tories are defending a majority of more than 18,000 while in Kingswood, its majority was in excess of 11,000 at the 2019 election.
With Tory morale low, Sunak used an interview this weekend to champion tax cuts, while also insisting that he was “up for the fight” despite Labour’s stubbornly large poll lead.
He also argued his plans for the economy were working, saying it was “pointing in the right direction” and that the “future is going to be better”.
But economists say they expect data on whether the economy has gone through two successive quarters of negative growth – the definition of a recession – to be on a knife-edge when it is released this week.
A senior MP added that there had been no indication the party believed it could retain the two seats: “A number of people have commented that normally you are inundated with messages from the whips’ office requesting – and in some cases requiring – that you go to each byelection on at least three occasions. That hasn’t happened in either seat, which is quite incredible.
“It’s going to be a difficult week. You’ve got the potential of the country going into recession and you’ve got the potential of inflation going up. Trouble is brewing for Rishi, I’m afraid.”
Labour, meanwhile, was trying to play down suggestions that it will win easily in both byelections, as it sought to maximise turnout. Chris Bryant, the Labour frontbencher who is the “political lead” in Kingswood, said: “Everybody is assuming that, just because we have won a few byelections recently, that we are going to win here. A lot of people are undecided. We have to fight for every vote, door by door.”
Tory strategists say that instead of pouring resources into the byelections, they are prioritising the party’s general election campaign. Rightwing Conservatives are increasingly focusing their hopes on chancellor Jeremy Hunt cutting tax in the budget, with their focus being inheritance tax.
The party is also trying to coordinate attacks on Labour’s economic policies. However, a report on Labour’s windfall tax on oil and gas companies, published on Saturday, appeared to admit it referred to a policy that Labour no longer held.
“This policy costing was completed and signed off on 22 January 2024,” it states. “Since then further announcements have been made by the Labour party, which would impact the costs of this policy.”
Labour said the Tories had “costed somebody’s policy, but it is not Labour’s”.
The news comes amid initial signs that Labour’s huge U-turn on spending £28bn a year on green investment has not dented the party’s poll lead. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer shows that Labour’s lead stands at 18 points – up 2 points from a fortnight ago. Keir Starmer now has an 11-point lead with regard to who voters think would make the best prime minister.
The Tory campaign has been hamstrung in Wellingborough, where the local party insisted on selecting the partner of ousted Tory MP Peter Bone, who was removed after a watchdog found he had bullied a staff member and exposed his genitals to them, which Bone denies.
“It has not gone well,” said one senior Tory. “MPs would rather that we had more resources to put into their seats that they have to defend at the general election.”
In Kingswood, South Gloucestershire, where Conservative MP Chris Skidmore resigned over Sunak’s plan for a new law that “promotes the production of new oil and gas”, Labour is also the strong favourite in the seat.
Over the past week Tory MPs were left frustrated by a series of errors by Sunak. Some complained of the prime minister’s decision to deride Starmer in the House of Commons over Labour’s position on transgender people while the mother of the murdered teenager Brianna Ghey was watching from the public gallery.
Others despaired of a party political broadcast in which Sunak used a whiteboard to explain his plans for the country. One departing MP said the week had been “very bleak”.