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Rishi Sunak braces for testing week of by-elections and economic woe after trans row

The prime minister is set to face one of his most difficult weeks yet as he prepares for gloomy economic forecasts and a series of testing by-elections.

Experts are expected to announce this week that Britain has slipped into a technical recession, while the Consumer Price Index is forecast to announce further rises in inflation.

The economic downturn will set the backdrop for two nail-biting by-elections on Thursday, as voters take to the polling booths in Wellingborough and Kingswood.

Conservative MP Peter Bone was forced to resign over sexual misconduct allegations, sparking the Wellingborough by-election (PA)
Conservative MP Peter Bone was forced to resign over sexual misconduct allegations, sparking the Wellingborough by-election (PA)

In both constituencies, forecasts give Labour a modest victory – but it is Wellingborough, where the threat of Reform UK looms large, that the prime minister will be most nervous about.

The opposition is expected to nibble away at the Conservative majority, giving credence to his colleagues who are attempting to shift the prime minister further right in his policy.

Mr Sunak’s tricky week follows an equally difficult few days.

Aides in his team are at loggerheads over the public response to a series of political gaffes made over the past week, Bloomberg has reported.

On Monday, the PM came under scrutiny when he shook hands with TalkTV host, Piers Morgan, on a £1,000 bet that he would deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Critics dubbed this stunt “cruel” and “depraved”, with many questioning the optics of the millionaire prime minister betting money on the success of his flagship policy and the lives of vulnerable refugees.

On Tuesday, Mr Sunak faced yet another headache from his colleagues. A group of Conservative MPs, led by his predecessor Liz Truss, launched a “popular Conservatism” (PopCon) movement, calling for the return of grassroots policies such as low taxation, net zero rollbacks and an end to “wokery”.

Then, on Wednesday, the prime minister caused uproar when he made a trans jibe at the leader of the opposition during PMQs, as mother of murdered trans teenager, Brianna Ghey, attended parliament. Mr Sunak’s comments prompted outrage as he accused Sir Keir of being incapable of “defining a woman”, as cries of “shame” rang out from the backbenches.

Mr Sunak has since refused to apologise, despite calls from Brianna Ghey’s father, creating a divide both in and outside of the party over his use of transgender people for political point-scoring and his treatment of the grieving parents.

Where some senior aides have seen Mr Sunak’s comments as politically advantageous and urged him to stick by his words, others have felt his initial comments and subsequent reaction to be a lapse of judgement.

Conservative Jamie Wallis, who is the first openly transgender MP, publicly called the prime minister’s comments “insensitive” and called on his party to reconsider how they approach the issue.

“I know from my own interactions with the prime minister that today’s display of insensitivity must have been inadvertent.

“Today has been a tough day for me, but all I can think about right now is Brianna’s mother. Let us all think of her as we choose how to progress with this debate.”

Mr Sunak’s gaffes have reportedly caused rifts within the party, with some advisers and colleagues questioning not only his use of culture wars but also his political judgement.

Party aides had been looking forward to the week as they anticipated Labour’s climbdown from their £28bn green prosperity pledge. Mr Sunak had been expected to capitalise on the U-turn and make political hay from the decision to abandon the figure.

Instead, the prime minister’s missteps overshadowed what could have been an opportunity for a major political attack on the opposition party that is currently polling 20 points ahead.

Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer have backtracked on their 2021 £28bn green pledge (Getty)
Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer have backtracked on their 2021 £28bn green pledge (Getty)

Those around the prime minister will be worried about keeping the party unified, particularly as Mr Sunak’s pledge to grow the economy is under threat.

This week, he admitted that the party was not meeting its pledge to reduce NHS waiting lists. National debt remains stubbornly high, and the party remains divided over the government’s flagship Rwanda policy, with the feasibility of flights taking off before the next election under question.

As he fails to deliver on his key pledge – and if the country continues to reject the Conservatives at the ballot box – there is a real risk that colleagues may want another roll of the dice and attempt to force yet another leadership election.