Tories losing Houchen and Street would ‘set vultures circling’, Rishi Sunak warned

Tories losing Houchen and Street would ‘set vultures circling’, Rishi Sunak warned

Rishi Sunak has been warned that losses in the Tees Valley and West Midlands mayoral elections would “set the vultures circling”, with restless Tory MPs agitating for a leadership challenge.

On the weekend reports emerged of a Tory plot to replace the PM with Penny Mordaunt, Mr Sunak has been warned that the unseating of Ben Houchen and Andy Street in next Thursday’s contests could further damage his standing.

The pair are the Conservatives’ most powerful figures outside of Westminster and have built major personal brands.

Ben Houchen has remained significantly more popular than the Conservatives nationally (Ian Forsyth/PA Wire)

When their seats were last up for election in 2021, Mr Houchen won a remarkable 72 per cent of the vote, while Mr Street won with 54 per cent.

Amid collapsing poll ratings for the Tories nationally, both have managed to maintain higher levels of personal support than Mr Sunak and the Conservatives.

But, in a worrying sign the week before ballots open, pollsters are recording both races close to neck and neck: Mr Houchen is slightly leading in Tees Valley, while Mr Street is slightly behind in the West Midlands race.

Adding to the pressure on the PM, who has again refused to rule out calling a July general election, a group of Tory plotters have reportedly hatched a plan to replace him with Ms Mordaunt.

They are said to have hatched a “100 Days To Save Britain” plan whereby Ms Mordaunt, best known for wielding a ceremonial sword at the King’s coronation, would become PM. Mr Sunak’s premiership was also rocked on Saturday by the shock defection of former health minister Dr Dan Poulter to the Labour Party.

And Chris Hopkins, director of polling company Savanta, said that if both Tory mayors lose, “the vultures really will be circling for Rishi Sunak”.

Mr Hopkins told The Independent: “If Ben Houchen and Andy Street both hold on next Thursday, there will be some comfort for the Conservatives in that.

“And if one loses but the other wins, that is probably a score draw. But if both lose, the vultures really will start circling for Rishi Sunak.

“These are two figures who are essentially running campaigns as independently of the Conservative Party as possible, and the fact the races are as close as they are is testament to the strength of their personal brands.

“If both were to lose, it would show how much of a drag the Conservative brand is nationally.”

West Midlands mayor Andy Street is facing a tough re-election battle (PA)

Home secretary James Cleverly warned Tory MPs on Thursday that a leadership challenge against Mr Sunak would be a “catastrophically bad idea”.

Tricky mayoral elections, combined with the loss of hundreds of council seats across the country, could galvanise MPs unhappy with the PM into a bid to replace him before the general election.

Mr Cleverly said: “If you’re going to jump out of an aeroplane, please make sure you’ve got a parachute before you leave the aeroplane. And don’t say, ‘No, we’ll work that out on the way down’.

“I think those people who think that another leadership campaign, as truncated as it might be between now and the election, is anything other than a catastrophically bad idea.”

A senior Tory MP agreed, telling The Independent they did not “see the point of ditching Rishi” because his successor would “struggle to move the dial” and face “owning a general election loss”. But the MP added that “things are febrile enough for that kind of logic to go out the window”.

Mr Hopkins added: “If the Conservatives were to impose another leader before the general election, the cost would be catastrophic.” He said the benefit of changing leaders would be outweighed by the chaos of imposing a fourth prime minister since the last general election.

Britain’s top polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice told The Independent that the results of the mayoral contests will have bigger political conclusions than polling conclusions.

If the Conservatives hold Tees Valley and the West Midlands, he said they and Mr Sunak would have “cover” and the “nervousness of Tory MPs” would be quelled.

But he added: “If they do badly in the rest of the elections, and they lose Houchen, and they lose Street, there is no defence.

“It is bad, and it is going to get presented as bad news.”

Voters will go to the polls on Thursday 2 May (EPA)

Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward said neither Mr Houchen nor Mr Street would be seen as “possible winners” without their strong personal support.

He did not call the races either way but told The Independent Mr Street could be boosted in the West Midlands by the backlash against Labour over its stance on the war in Gaza.

Addressing the other seats up for grabs, he said the Tories would have “a bad night” but it would not be “a blowout for Labour”.

Lord Hayward said the Conservatives would lose more than 400 local council seats, while Labour would gain as many as 250. There are 2,600 council seats up for grabs on 2 May.