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Rishi Sunak urges Tory MPs to pull together ahead of local elections

Rishi Sunak urged his fractured party to pull together at a meeting of backbench MPs on Wednesday night as he tried to rally his troops ahead of the local elections.

Conservative MPs put on a determined show of support for the prime minister when he addressed them at the influential 1922 Committee.

When he arrived at the meeting he was greeted by sustained cheers and banging of tables. His speech, on the familiar theme of needing to “unite or die”, and his answers to questions, were interrupted by applause, laughter and more desk-banging designed to impress the crowd of journalists waiting in the corridor outside.

Rishi Sunak urged his party to pull together ahead of forthcoming elections (AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak urged his party to pull together ahead of forthcoming elections (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Sunak’s appearance at the meeting came following another difficult weekend during which rumours swirled of a plot by Tory right-wingers to oust him ahead of the local elections in May.

Earlier on Wednesday, Downing Street said Mr Sunak would likely use the financial trouble of Labour-run Birmingham City Council as a rallying cry for the May 2 poll, where residents in 107 local authorities across England go to the polls.

Asked what the PM’s message would be to backbench Tories, the prime minister’s press secretary told reporters: “He will be talking about the local elections and [will say] we have got to pull together to make sure Labour don’t do what they have done to Britain, what they have done to Birmingham.”

Birmingham City Council declared effective bankruptcy last year and faces an outstanding bill of £1bn as well as the requirement to find £300m of savings over the next two years. The Labour council have been forced to raise taxes by 21 per cent, and residents will see cuts to their bin collections and dimmed streetlights.

Asked whether Mr Sunak was concerned that the Tories had not been working well together, his spokeswoman replied: “He wants everyone going into these local elections taking about the Labour Party’s poor record in Birmingham, Wales and London, and that will be the focus of the Conservatives as we go into these important local elections.”

Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt has been rumoured as a potential Conservative leadership contender (PA Wire)
Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt has been rumoured as a potential Conservative leadership contender (PA Wire)

Later, Downing Street refused to say whether Mr Sunak had held talks with Commons leader Penny Mordaunt following reports she is being lined up by Tory rebels as his potential successor if he faces a no-confidence vote. Sources close to her have denied the suggestion that the Commons leader is plotting a takeover, but Ms Mordaunt has yet to issue a public denial.

Mr Sunak’s press secretary refused to “get into private discussions between colleagues” when asked whether the PM had spoken to Ms Mordaunt or those calling for him to be deposed.

Asked whether the prime minister was disappointed that Ms Mordaunt had not firmly denied being part of a plot to replace him, his political spokeswoman said: “What the prime minister wants is all of his cabinet ministers and the wider conservative team to focus on delivering for the country.”

Despite Mr Sunak’s supposed optimism, his spokesperson would not say whether the party expected to make gains at the local elections as the party continues to trail Labour in the polls.

The Labour-run council declared itself effectively bankrupt in September last year (PA Wire)
The Labour-run council declared itself effectively bankrupt in September last year (PA Wire)

When reporters asked if Sir Keir Starmer had had any response to Mr Sunak’s proposed attack line, the Labour leader’s spokesperson said: “I could equally give you a list of conservative councils where they've had to introduce double-digit council tax rises, whether it's Thurrock, whether it's Woking.

“We saw the failure a few years ago at Northampton County Council. We saw double-digit rises in Croydon when it was under control of the Tories. I think the idea that this is unique to one party is clearly not the case.

“What we are seeing is the result of the government having massively underfunded local government as a whole and the responsibilities that local authorities have been left with to try and make the best of a very difficult situation”.

Several MPs left the meeting on Wednesday night early, telling The Independent there was “very strong support for the PM” and that his presentation had been “very upbeat”. One former cabinet minister said: “He should bottle that and take it outside.”

Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was backing Mr Sunak (PA Wire)
Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said he was backing Mr Sunak (PA Wire)

Jacob Rees-Mogg, another former cabinet minister and a frequent critic of the prime minister, said: “I’m supporting Rishi – may he go on as long as Walpole.”

Other MPs leaving the meeting later gave some idea of what the prime minister had said in his speech. Tory rebels “aren’t just harming me, they are harming every one of us in this room”, Mr Sunak was reported to have said.

A fuller account of the prime minister’s words may emerge later if, as was claimed by one observer, an MP recorded his speech on his phone and was spotted outside the room sending the recording to someone.

Most of the questions were said to be asked by Sunak loyalists, including Liam Fox, another former cabinet minister and leadership candidate, who said that no Tory MP elected in 1997 went on to be prime minister – as a warning to those thinking that electoral defeat might help their leadership ambitions. Theresa May interrupted to point out that she was first elected in 1997.

One or two backbenchers were less positive after the meeting, saying that the prime minister was fine, but that most of his speech was flat.