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Right-wing Tory MPs are considering trying to replace Rishi Sunak if Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party performs well in two by-elections on Thursday, i understands.
Sources close to the right of the party said they would be closely monitoring Reform UK’s performance in both Wellingborough and Kingswood amid growing fears that traditional Tory voters could jump ship at the general election.
“Let’s see if Reform hit double figures in Wellingborough,” said one source familiar with right-wing MPs’ thinking. “That’s the test.”
Labour is currently the favourite to take both Tory seats on Thursday, but strong results for Reform UK could raise serious questions for the Conservatives.
A survey by Deltapoll published on Monday suggested the party is continuing to lose support, with 27 per cent of adults saying they would vote for the Conservatives at the next general election. It marks a two-point drop compared with last week and means the Tories now stand 18 points behind Labour.
Meanwhile, a separate poll by YouGov last month signalled that support for Reform UK, which counts former Brexit Party leader Mr Farage as its president, continues grow. Thirteen per cent of people said they would vote for the party at the next election at the end of January – meaning it currently holds around half the support of the ruling Government.
Jim Blagden, the head of polling for right-wing think-tank Onward, echoed suggestions that Wellingborough will be a “key test of how seriously to take Reform as an electoral threat to the Conservatives”.
He wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that it will demonstrate whether the party can convert recent hype into “crosses on ballots” at the Wellingborough by-election, which was prompted by Tory MP Peter Bone’s suspension from the House of Commons.
Support for Reform UK could also grow if Mr Farage announces a return as leader of the party, a position currently held by businessman Richard Tice.
Mr Farage told the Sunday Times he was “totally undecided” whether to return as leader, asking: “What can I actually achieve other than making the Labour lead bigger?”
It comes as right-wing Tory MPs are understood to be using this week as a bellwether for Mr Sunak’s leadership, with suggestions that double defeat in the by-elections could catalyse “plotters” to move against the Prime Minister.
i understands most MPs believe there is little prospect of the Prime Minister being replaced before the general election but several have privately expressed concern about the danger of further political unrest.
A senior Tory MP told i some are planning to launch a second wave of anti-Sunak briefing, dubbed the “grid of shit”, later this week if the by-elections fare poorly for the party.
The first campaign came from allies of Suella Braverman when she was sacked by Mr Sunak in November. It included claims the Prime Minister struck a deal with Ms Braverman to secure her support, which set out “firm assurances” on key issues such as immigration, the small boats crisis and Brexit.
Some have also suggested a gloomy economic forecast expected on Thursday will compound difficulties for Mr Sunak, with fears the UK could enter a technical recession. Inflation is also thought to be headed for an unexpected rise when the Office for National Statistics publishes the latest figures on Wednesday.
However, one source close to the right of the Tory party played down suggestions the Prime Minister is bracing for a double blow for the economy, and told i the Government has been undertaking “expectation management”.
Others also insisted that a string of recent headaches for Labour means the tables could still turn for the Conservatives, as they urged the party to come together rather than stoke further division.
One Tory MP and former minister told i: “The sense I get is that there is a fair amount of unity against those who undermine Rishi.
“The problems with Labour – U-turns, dodgy candidates, et cetera – mean that we are in a far stronger position than the wider commentators suggest… The wider mood around my patch is one of fear for Labour, if not support for us.”