April 20, 2024 - 8:00am

The latest opinion poll from Ipsos puts the Conservative Party on just 19%. Significantly, that means a telephone-based pollster is now in line with online operations such as YouGov. Both now have Reform UK well above 10% — which would mean catastrophe for the Tories.

Of course, what would really substantiate these polls is some real-world electoral data. Luckily, we’re just two weeks away from getting it: the local elections are on 2 May.

So what happens to Rishi Sunak if the outcome confirms the worst? Will he be replaced as leader and therefore prime minister? Or, to put in another way, why on Earth wouldn’t he be? If Tory doomsday really is on the cards, then the more rigorous approach is to look at the no-change leadership scenarios and ask how plausible they are.

For instance, could the fog of war save Sunak? There are various technical reasons for why it’s hard to turn piecemeal local results into general election vote shares. By the time that John Curtice has done his sums, the news agenda might have moved on. And yet there’ll be enough headline results on which to build a doomsday narrative. For instance, if Sadiq Khan gets a thumping majority in London while Andy Street is defeated in the West Midlands, that will crystallise the Tory predicament. Then there’s the number of lost councillors — the blues did well last time these seats were fought, so expect the difference to be hung around Sunak’s neck. Watch out also, for local results in Cabinet ministers’ constituencies.

Assuming the end is nigh — and visibly so — are there any scenarios in which Sunak is allowed to lead his party into the abyss? It could be that his MPs have already given up. So far, 63 have announced they’re standing down. However, the Tories have been around since the 17th century. Whatever individual MPs may decide, the institution is hardwired for survival. If that means rolling the dice again on a new leader, then needs must.

MPs may judge that a bitter civil war just months before a general election would be more damaging than the election itself. However, the PM — unlike his immediate predecessors — is a reasonable man. If the local results lay bare a hopeless situation, he may go quietly. That way, he can get on with his career, instead of fighting a thankless general election campaign only to resign his seat afterwards.

Finally, what if he’s ready to go, but there’s no one ready and able to replace him? Why would his successors want the job before the election and not afterwards, when they could start with a clean slate? Well, apart from getting to be prime minister for a bit, some candidates are more likely to be chosen now than later. Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman might be waiting in the wings at present, but they are less likely to prevail in the drawn-out contest of ideas that would take place in Opposition.

The fact is that Sunak has had his try. In a fortnight it will be clear whether his plan offers the slightest hope of success. If it doesn’t, then change is the only chance.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.