5 Headaches Facing Rishi Sunak As MPs Return To Parliament

Rishi Sunak attends a Q&A event in north west London, as he launched an employment plan to help veterans secure high-paid jobs after they leave the armed forces.
Rishi Sunak attends a Q&A event in north west London, as he launched an employment plan to help veterans secure high-paid jobs after they leave the armed forces.via Associated Press

MPs return to Westminster next week, but none of the headaches inflicting Rishi Sunak have eased during the relative calm of the Easter recess.

The prime minister has been active throughout the break from the Westminster hothouse, visiting the regions to promote pledges such as a crackdown on shoplifting and launching a scheme to help veterans secure better-paid jobs.

But many of the crunchier issues that will define the Sunak premiership – benchmarks that he himself has set – remain stalled, and his critics, if anything, have got louder in recent weeks.

Here are just five that have stayed in his in-tray.

1. Reform UK eating the Tories’ lunch

Reform UK is threatening to split the right-wing vote in much the same way as Ukip and the Brexit Party have for the last two decades. And with one-time leader Nigel Farage flirting with a comeback, there’s a risk of more defections akin to former Tory deputy leader Lee Anderson’s departure. In an election year, a divided party is the last thing you need.

So when a Tory MP urged voters to back Anderson at the election, Sunak must have been pulling his hair out. Nick Fletcher made the extraordinary comments in a post on X (formerly Twitter), saying he regretted Anderson’s decision to quit the Conservatives after he lost the party whip for refusing to apologise for saying London mayor Sadiq Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates”.

In his post, Fletcher, the Conservative MP for Don Valley, described Anderson as Ashifield’s “greatest champion”, despite the fact that the Tories will have their own candidate in the seat. Fletcher’s comments came after Anderson announced that he would not be campaigning in Fletcher’s seat, as well as those of a number of ‘Red Wall’ Tories.

In one recent poll, Reform UK were just four points behind the Tories on 16%.

2. The polls are barely budging

Sunak initially clawed back some of the deficit to Labour he inherited from Truss-Johnson, but Keir Starmer’s party now have regular, comfortable leads.

Two of the latest polls suggested Labour’s lead over the Tories is getting even bigger. The last YouGov survey shows support for Labour has jumped by three points to 43%, at the same time as the Conservatives slumping by a point to just 20%, a massive 23 points behind their rivals. Meanwhile, a separate poll by Techne UK had Labour on 45%, up one point, with the Tories down a point to 22%.

These come amid two grim “megapolls”.

A YouGov poll suggested Starmer’s party will win 403 seats – or a huge majority of 154 – at an election as the Tories slip to just 155 MPs, a loss of 210 seats. Another bombshell Survation poll suggested the Tories are on course to win fewer than 100 seats at the election.

Not much appears to be moving the dial.

3. A local elections shellacking?

The local elections on May 2 are likely to be a key moment, with a disastrous night perhaps set to trigger calls for Sunak to be replaced as Conservative leader.

According to polling experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, the Tories are set to lose 500 councillors, or half the seats they are defending. More than 2,600 seats will be up for grabs across England.

Sunak has refused to name the date of the next general election, and a Conservative massacre could prompt Sunak to finally decide – if only to keep the wolf from the door.

4. Rwanda returns

It was almost two years ago when Britain and Rwanda signed a deal that would see migrants who cross the English Channel in small boats sent to the East African country with a one-way ticket. So far, no migrant has been flown to Rwanda under the agreement.

Legislation to help get flights off the ground is currently stuck in a game of parliamentary “ping-pong” as the House of Lords votes against the plan. The government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill will return to parliament next week, where the wrangling will continue.

With little sign that peers in the Lords are willing to give ground, the stalemate over Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorised migrants to the UK looks likely to continue.

During the break, Sunak gave his strongest signal yet that he is willing to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights to get it done – a move that would divide his party further.

5. The economy is as flat as a pancake

Some good news: Britain’s economy is on course to exit a shallow recession after output grew for a second month in a row in February, and January’s reading was revised higher, official data showed on Friday.

GDP expanded by 0.1% month on month, a sign the UK is likely to move out of the two quarters of decline that defines a recession. But the economy is hardly roaring back to health. And with “sticky” inflation remaining higher than expected across the world, economist are predicting fewer interest rate cuts this year – which would have been a catalyst to help the economy back onto its feet.