From bad to worse: Public gaffes pile the pressure on Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak.
Rishi Sunak has had a particularly bad week, with gaffes from multiple angles. Credit: PA

Rishi Sunak must spend a lot of time surrounded by people, whether its his family, upstairs in the Downing Street flat, or the hundreds of officials who work around him in the offices below. 

But sometimes being prime minister must feel immensely lonely - especially when you are leading a party 20 points behind in the polls, with one colleague warning of electoral "massacre". 

This week, it feels like a lot has gone wrong for the Conservative PM from his casual £1,000 bet with broadcaster Piers Morgan over his Rwanda policy, to a tactless joke about trans people in front of grieving mother, Esther Ghey. 

These gaffes follow months of pressure over dire opinion polls. While no Tory MPs followed former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke in going public with their concerns, a small number are secretly plotting about how Mr Sunak could be replaced. 

They think that things could get even worse next week, with fears over inflation figures (and the possibility of recession) on top of a pair of by-elections in two Tory seats.

If Mr Sunak were to lose Kingswood and Wellingborough - what then? 

"Next week will be judgement day," said one source familiar with the thinking among the right-wing MPs most convinced that Mr Sunak should be removed.

"Rishi has been given a clear run into the by-elections. Those voters will judge him on his performance and that alone. 

"If we can't win Wellingborough - we are approaching a 1997 result."

Over the past few months, I've spent some time with the prime minister - for ITV's Tonight programme - meeting his family at breakfast in the flat, travelling to Southampton where he grew up, visiting target seats across the country and inside his Downing Street office at critical times - like after he authorised military action.

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After carrying out a similar project with Labour leader, Keir Starmer, it was interesting to witness the difference that political positioning can make. For Mr Starmer - who at points in the past has been close to a leadership challenge himself - a 20 point poll lead has been transformative. Like a "balm" one of his close allies, said. 

Even on a day like this - when he is U-turning on a flagship policy - the Labour leader is bolstered by the support of many around him.

But for Mr Sunak it is a very different picture, as he is buffeted by Tory fears of what trailing by 20 points means for their careers. 

At one point I put to him his own quote ahead of the first Tory leadership battle, which he lost to Liz Truss. He warned that her economic plans would leave the Conservatives with "absolutely no chance of winning the next election". 

So, I asked him: you must have thought when becoming PM that you had two years and then you would lose?

"I certainly didn't take this job because I thought it would be easy. I did it for a sense of duty," he said.

Sir Keir Starmer currently enjoys a sizable polling lead over the prime minister. Credit: PA

"Even if you thought - chances are 'I'm going to lose'," I asked. 

"Well, I don't think we will," he replied 

But he knows that many are writing him off. On another occasion in the flat, when I put to him that he may not be there a year from now, he said: "None of these things last forever.

"The kids know that they won't be living here forever. Whatever happens."

But he said he wouldn't focus on the polls.

The question is how does he focus on the job - amid all this noise. Even if next week goes better than expected (one rebel suggested the PM could win Wellingborough) the knives are out for after the May election.

Mr Sunak is trying to urge his party to come together and, admittedly, the rebellions are at the fringe. When I asked about plotting, he spoke of disagreements on Rwanda, but said the rows in his party were "miniscule" compared to the chasm between the Conservatives and Labour on the issue.

But he admitted that "divided parties" don't win elections.

That was the message that his chief strategist - Isaac Levido - tried to get across to MPs at a recent dinner, to which they were all invited (and around half attended).

Many of them don't blame Mr Sunak, and think that changing leader again would be a total disaster for the party. Mr Sunak's ally, Claire Coutinho, told me that Simon Clarke had "united" the party. 

Some - particularly northern MPs and including Sunak loyalists - are discussing whether Boris Johnson could be persuaded to come back and campaign with them in an election. And, speaking to me, Mr Sunak didn't close off the idea of a comeback for the controversial former PM, who was forced to resign in the wake of Partygate and other scandals. 

But there is a bit of a move at the moment away from the rebellion.

Claire Coutinho has been a vocal ally of the prime minister's. Credit: PA

One plotter told me they had decided to give Mr Sunak another chance. Another key figure on that side told me they believed Mr Sunak would fight the next election.

They said they believed a change of leader and a few radical policies could be a gamechanger for the Tories (at least limiting the election loss). But they conceded that the number of MPs who have put in letters of no confidence in their leader is probably in the low 20s, and there isn't quite enough momentum to change that.

After all, the new leader many of them want - Kemi Badenoch - doesn't want to take part.

Instead figures like her and Penny Mordaunt are working on improving their standing in the party ready for a leadership battle, should it arrive after the next election.

Most Tories seem convinced they are going to lose, unless Mr Sunak can pull off the mother of all turnarounds.

Tonight: Rishi Sunak: Up Close airs Thursday 8 February at 8:30pm on ITV1. It is then available on catch up on ITVX

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