Minister tries to quash rumours of plot to oust Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak will lead the Tories into the next general election, the transport secretary insisted, amid reports of a plot to oust the prime minister.

Mark Harper dismissed speculation some Conservative rebels want the prime minister to be replaced with Commons leader Penny Mordaunt.

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Asked on Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips if Mr Sunak will still be leader at the next election, Mr Harper said: "Yes he will.

"And he'll take us into that election and he'll set out very clearly that we're a government with a plan."

Asked on the rumours about Ms Mordaunt, he said his colleagues should focus on what is "right for the country".

"That is the approach that the prime minister takes as well," he added.

"He focuses on making the right decisions, even if in the short term they're not necessarily popular.... I'm confident those decisions will pay off."

Replacing Mr Sunak would involve imposing a sixth prime minister on the country since the 2010 general election, and the third without going to the polls.

Ms Mordaunt has herself shot down speculation she is involved in a plot to become the next Tory leader, telling Sky News's political editor Beth Rigby the idea is "nonsense" and "the public are rather tired of these stories".

One of her backers also called the reports a "made up briefing".

With the Tories languishing behind Labour by around 20 points in the polls - and many senior MPs at risk of losing their seats - there has long been speculation about Mr Sunak's position.

Reports in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph over the weekend had suggested MPs on the right of the party met moderates this week to discuss uniting behind Ms Mordaunt if the prime minister faces a no confidence vote.

It followed a difficult fortnight for Mr Sunak, in which he came under fire over his handling of racist comments reportedly made by a major party donor, and the defection of Lee Anderson - who Mr Sunak had promoted to Tory deputy chairman - to the right-wing populist Reform UK party.

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Some Tories were also angry at the perceived lack of giveaways in Jeremy Hunt's budget, saying he should have cut income tax rather than national insurance.

May election rumours 'nonsense'

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said Mr Sunak could put the rumours of a leadership change to bed himself if he named the date of the general election.

He told Sky News: "There's Tory MPs who are in the papers today saying Rishi Sunak can't continue.

"This is not in the national interest anymore. It is irresponsible. We need stability in this country.

"He could stabilise this by calling, naming the date of a general election. Otherwise, I fear we may have a Tory leadership election ahead of a general election."

The latest date the next election can be held is January 2025, though Mr Sunak has said his "working assumption" is that he will call it in the second half of this year.

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Labour MPs have called the prime minister a "chicken" for ruling out an election on 2 May, to coincide with local elections.

Some pundits had speculated Mr Sunak could go early to stave off plans to overthrow him, reap any benefits from the spring budget and avoid a rise in Channel crossings over the summer.

However Mr Harper said reports there could have been a snap election in May were "nonsense".

"The prime minister made it quite clear at the beginning of the year that his working assumption was the election was going to be at the end of the year.

"So all this sort of froth we've had about an election being in May was always nonsense frankly, and he made that clear at the beginning of the year."