Rishi Sunak’s position should be safe through the summer despite severe losses forecast for the May local elections, but he could face a challenge late in the year if party fortunes do not improve, Tory sources warned.
One minister dismissed suggestions a cohort of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss allies would rebel in the face of negative local election results as “total bollocks”.
But Tory sources said the PM’s position could be in trouble if the party’s current poll position is not seen to be improving in the lead up to the general election next year.
They warned MPs at risk of losing seats could mobilise against him in November, once he has been in the job a year.
Reports in The Sunday Times suggested there are up to 60 MPs who backed Mr Johnson or Ms Truss prepared to topple Mr Sunak if the local elections on 4 May are particularly bad for the Conservatives.
This was dismissed by a minister, who told i: “It’s total bollocks. Everyone expects us to get a pasting and no one wants a change.”
There is a general acknowledgement that the local elections will not go well for the Tories – with one former minister saying that Mr Sunak will “underwhelm” in this, his first electoral test, because “he is not a leader – he is a manager”.
But there are concerns that Mr Sunak could face a challenge if enough MPs believe their constituencies could be at risk in the national vote next year.
One Tory source said MPs would want to lay low for now, not wanting to risk the public’s anger by changing leader again so soon. But they suggested Mr Sunak could be in more danger when it became clearer to members that they could be at risk of losing their jobs.
“I am sure there will be one or two of the dedicated Boris-ites who use the election to further their cause,” the source said.
“It’s pretty much accepted that the Tories will have a bad night and we have the Coronation, which will also complicate things. But given the number of changes of PM we have had, I don’t think it would be very wise to do that again.
“I think there is a critical mass of people who – even if they do not think Rishi is doing a great job – they probably think the best thing is to keep heads down and give it a year and see if they are at risk of losing their own electoral seats.”
An ex-minister said Mr Sunak “will be challenged when his 12 months are up in November”.
“No one is going to let him take us into an election 15-20 points behind,” they added. “It is clear no one will let Rishi fight an election – he lost to Liz Truss for goodness sake.”
A source close to Mr Johnson denied that he was preparing a coup, insisting: “Boris Johnson is supporting the Government.”
And Ms Truss’s team also said they did not recognise the reports of a planned rebellion “at all”.