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Tory 'Death March': Did This Week Seal Rishi Sunak's Fate?

Rishi Sunak endured his worst PMQs at the hands of Keir Starmer.
Rishi Sunak endured his worst PMQs at the hands of Keir Starmer.

Rishi Sunak endured his worst PMQs at the hands of Keir Starmer.

As moments of political symbolism go, it was hard to beat.

Coming to the end of a particularly bruising PMQs clash with Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak prepared to deliver his pre-prepared soundbite for the broadcasters.

Unfortunately for the prime minister, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle chose that precise moment to call for order in the chamber, automatically cutting off Sunak’s microphone.

It meant that as he tried to tell the Labour leader that “Britain isn’t listening” to him, no one could hear what he was saying.

At the end of the session, the grim faces on the Tory benches told their own story. If his MPs were previously unconvinced that Sunak could lead them to victory at the next election, the preceding 40 minutes appeared to have removed all doubt.

He was mercilessly mocked by Starmer, both over the government’s failure to meet its promise to reduce immigration as well as the PM’s bizarre decision to pick a fight with Greece over the Elgin Marbles.

Angered by Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis going on the BBC to restate his government’s desire to have the ancient sculptures returned by the British Museum, Sunak cancelled a face-to-face meeting the pair were due to have on Tuesday.

The diplomatic spat which inevitably followed was too much for Starmer to resist.

“Never mind the British Museum, it’s the prime minister who has obviously lost his marbles,” the Labour leader declared, to hoots of laughter from his MPs.

Presenting himself as a PM-in-waiting, Starmer went on to explain how he - unlike Sunak - had met with Mitsotakis.

“I discussed the economy, security, immigration,” he told the prime minister. “I also told him we wouldn’t change the law regarding the marbles. It’s not that difficult.”

Keir Starmer with Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Keir Starmer with Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Keir Starmer with Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Former cabinet minister Simon Clarke - no great fan of Sunak, it must be said - spoke for many of his colleagues when he posted on X: “We either set out a credible plan on legal immigration, and a really robust emergency bill on Rwanda, or we face more PMQs like that one…”

One Tory MP told HuffPost UK: “People don’t seem to know what’s going on in No.10 at the moment - they all seem to have gone a bit bonkers.

“The marbles thing was just mad. There doesn’t seem to be any coherence in there at all.”

One senior Tory adviser said: “Snubbing Mitsotakis was just appalling - proper toddler tantrum stuff.”

Speaking on his Political Currency podcast, George Osborne - who also happens to be chair of the British Museum - said: “I thought what Rishi Sunak did was open the door, and this was definitely not what he should have done, to a pretty devastating line of attack from Keir Starmer.

“Which one sounded like the prime minister? It was Keir Starmer, talking about the conversations with the Greek prime minister, about important international issues. And it’s Sunak who’s deploying the kind of cheap points and I thought that was such a mistake.”

A former minister said: “One colleague described it as being on a death march, which is exactly how it feels.

“There are still things that the government can do to improve the situation, but we’re just marking time until we lose the election.”

Another senior Conservative backbencher told HuffPost UK: “The mood among our MPs is that we are resigned to defeat and on an awful scale.”

That sense of fatalism has been backed up by recent opinion polls confirming that Sunak’s various attempts to improve his party’s fortunes have failed to dent Labour’s commanding poll lead.

The most recent, by Survation and Lodestone Communications, showed Labour on course for a 210-seat majority, with the Tories reduced to just 149 MPs.

One former cabinet minister said: “If the election is held next spring I think we could have a shot at getting 200 MPs, which at least allows you to form a decent opposition.

“But I’m more fearful now that he’ll go all the way to next autumn in the hope that something comes up, and it could then be a lot worse.”

With Tory backbench pressure mounting for No.10 to finally unveil the “emergency” legislation Sunak promised more than two weeks ago after the Supreme Court ruled the Rwanda scheme unlawful, there is no prospect of things getting any easier for him.

His repeated attempts in recent months to move the political dial - reversing green commitments, a policy-rich Tory conference, the King’s Speech and Autumn Statement - have all failed to turn things around.

“I went out door knocking on Saturday and nobody mentioned any of that stuff,” one Tory MP said.

And with defeat looming, maintaining control of his restive parliamentary party will present a further challenge to the PM in the months ahead.

“There are now three groups of Tory MPs,” one backbencher said. “You’ve got the ones who are standing again and want the election as soon as possible to improve their chances of coming back. 

“There are those who are standing down and want the election next autumn so they can get another six months of MPs’ wages. And there’s the 2019 intake who haven’t got a clue about anything.”

Parliament rises for Christmas on December 19, after which Sunak will at least have some respite before what is shaping up to be a particularly unhappy New Year for the Tory Party

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