‘Operation Save Rishi’ Aims to Get Leader Through Key Vote

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(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak said this week he’s putting UK defense spending on a “war footing.” He might as well have been talking about his own position.

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Allies of the British prime minister described the last few days as him entering campaign mode for a general election he must call by the end of January. A plan to tighten rules for welfare payments, ramming his flagship policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda through Parliament and a pledge to spend 2.5% of GDP on defense by 2030 all secured newspaper front-page coverage.

There’s even been intense speculation, which Downing Street is trying to play down, that Sunak is preparing to announce the date for a national vote early next week as he tries to seize the political agenda. On Friday afternoon, journalists, MPs and civil servants were frantically texting each other to exchange clues showing that an announcement was — or was not — imminent.

But another aide characterized the tempo shift more candidly as “Operation Save Rishi” ahead of a more immediate test, as the Conservative Party gears up for local council and mayoral elections on Thursday.

They’ve loomed as a flashpoint for months. Sunak’s internal Tory critics have warned that any result suggesting the opposition Labour Party is marching to power would trigger efforts to oust him. The recent flurry of activity was in part about getting Sunak through next week without a leadership challenge, members of his team said on condition of anonymity. They still expect a tough time.

The Tories are defending just under 1,000 seats from the last vote in 2021, when the party was boosted by the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. The party’s national support has slumped since, and Labour’s 20-point lead in the polls could translate to a loss of half of those seats.

Yet there’s even more focus on the outcome of two mayoral races, in the West Midlands and Tees Valley in northern England, where Tories Andy Street and Ben Houchen are battling to stay in their roles. Both are seen as a figureheads for recent Conservative inroads into traditional Labour areas, and losing both would be seen by many in the party as a bellwether for a national defeat.

Defeats for Houchen and Street would put Sunak in jeopardy, one lawmaker warned. A group of Tories, who claim to have been gathering support for a leadership change, are waiting for a moment to act. A minister described the Cabinet as fatigued and at the end of the road.

Privately, Sunak thinks Houchen can hold on and show the Tories can still win in Labour-facing areas, people familiar with the matter said. Street’s mayoralty is seen as in the balance, though he offered Sunak a boost by telling Bloomberg he wouldn’t blame the premier if he loses. The Conservatives expect Labour’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to win a third term relatively comfortably.

The Tories will likely have a “bad night,” but it won’t be a “blowout” victory for Labour, Tory peer and pollster Robert Hayward told reporters this week. That’s because Labour could be punished by some voters critical of its stance on the Israel-Hamas war. That could play into the mayoral races especially, he said, potentially helping Street and Houchen to win.

Meanwhile, those agitating against Sunak are proposing House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt as their preferred candidate, and are sharing polling with other MPs showing she’s viewed favorably by the public. But a Mordaunt ally said she wouldn’t resign after the May 2 votes or call for a change of leader, a position that appears to bolster Sunak’s position.

Even so, much of Sunak’s recent moves fit with the notion of a premier trying to fend off attacks. Monday’s pledge — that deportations of migrants to Rwanda would begin in 10 to 12 weeks — allows him to appeal to his right-wing Tory critics for more time to get flights in the air, one aide said.

The Rwanda policy is so central to Sunak’s strategy that some Tory ministers and officials are openly speculating he is considering calling the general election in July, around the time of the first flights. The rationale would be to coax voters tempted by the right-wing Reform UK party to stick with the Tories and Sunak’s promise to stop migrants arriving across the English Channel.

A campaign slogan could be, “We will stop the boats, Labour will stop the flights,” according to an aide.

Sunak’s promise to hike defense spending, meanwhile, undercut a key selling point of Mordaunt, the aide said. The Royal Navy reservist is a natural figurehead for Tories who are typically keen on boosting the nation’s military.

At the same time, Tory officials were pleased Starmer didn’t immediately match Sunak’s military spending commitment, seeing it as an opportunity to target the opposition on national security. Labour, which has pledged to lift defense spending to 2.5% of GDP when the public finances allow, accused the Tories of not being able to show how they would pay for it.

More is promised, including attacks on Labour over its policies on workers’ rights, to try to win back business leaders. One aide hailed it as Sunak’s best week in office, and another said it was the first example of clever politics by his team — though they also bemoaned that it hadn’t happened sooner.

Sunak’s office believe he’s had a good week at a good time, and that the plot to replace him before the general election is fizzling out. Some advisers want Sunak to name the date for the national vote now, something he has so far resisted. Downing Street’s preference has previously been to hold the election in the autumn, when inflation and interest rates have fallen.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps praised the premier’s leadership in an interview with the Times, urging Tory MPs to allow Sunak to “get on with the job.” “The past week has shown we have a very effective prime minister when it comes to looking after the things that really matter,” Shapps said.

In a week, it may be more clear if that optimism is well-founded. For now, Sunak is trying to portray an image of a government making progress. He went for a jog with Russ Cook, an ultra-runner known on social media as the “Hardest Geezer” who has just run the length of Africa.

“It’s not an easy time to be doing the job,” Sunak told Cook in a video posted by Downing Street. “But we keep going, right?”

--With assistance from Ailbhe Rea and Celia Bergin.

(Updates with Shapps comment in 19th paragraph)

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