Rishi Sunak has been in crisis mode since the start of the year – battling to get his Rwanda bill through parliament and fighting to fend off a plot by right-wing Tory rebels to bring him down.
An ill-timed mega-poll forecasting a landslide win for Labour – commissioned by a shadowy Conservative group organised by leading Sunak critic David Frost – sent No 10 into a tizzy.
Senior MP Simon Clarke – the Liz Truss and Boris Johnson loyalist – sparked fury by calling for a new PM, before it emerged that a cabal of ex-advisers was organising anti-Sunak efforts behind the scenes.
“No one likes that guy that’s shouting ‘iceberg’,” said Sir Simon on the backlash from Tory MPs over his warning of an electoral massacre unless they have the guts to get a new leader.
So how big is the group of Tory plotters? Has the conspiracy failed, or is just getting started? The Independent takes a closer look at how the secret plan to replace Mr Sunak has played out so far.
Frost’s ‘Labour landslide’ poll blames Sunak for Tory woes
Lord Frost is tied to an explosive YouGov megapoll – published in The Telegraph on 14 January with gloom-laden analysis – which shows that the Tories are on course to win as few as 169 seats at the general election.
It is timed to inflict maximum damage on Mr Sunak just before the crucial Commons vote on the Rwanda bill, which sees heavy criticism from the Tory right but passes with a rebellion of just 11 hardline Conservative MPs voting against it.
While Lord Frost owns up to helping organise the poll, he gives nothing away on the shadowy Conservative Britain Alliance group covering the survey’s estimated £40,000 cost.
Simon Clarke and Rees Mogg join Liz Truss’s new group
Liz Truss reveals that she is setting up yet another right-wing Tory faction, a group of free-market low-tax advocates calling themselves “Popular Conservativism”.
The group – with ex-Truss ministers Simon Clarke and Jacob Rees-Mogg on board to speak at a launch event – is ostensibly aimed at helping shape the next Conservative manifesto in the months ahead.
But suspicions are raised that Truss allies are on manoeuvres for a fresh push against Mr Sunak’s leadership of the party.
Simon Clarke calls for Sunak to be sacked to avoid Tory ‘massacre’
Ms Truss’ former levelling up secretary – a constant Sunak critic and one of the 11 MPs who voted against his Rwanda bill – said it was time for a new leader to avoid a “massacre” at the next election.
Senior Tories says as Priti Patel, David Davis and Ben Wallace lash out his “foolish” and “facile” move. Suella Braverman keeps quiet, while Ms Truss and fellow hardliner Robert Jenrick make clear they are not going to join the “coup” attempt.
Only the ardent Johnson fanatic Andrea Jenkyns, another consistent Sunak critic, joins Sir Simon in saying she had sent in her no-confidence letter. She claims more letters will go in. But a source close to the 1922 Committee tells The Independent, there is nothing close to the 53 letters needed to spark a leadership vote.
Defiant, and comparing the Tories to the Titanic, Sir Simon insists somebody had to shout “iceberg”. He suggests that he is putting a marker down for others to follow in the weeks ahead.
Ex-Sunak aide Will Dry says PM must go
It then emerges that a former No 10 adviser called Will Dry is working with a small cabal of ex-advisers and right-wing MPs to overthrow Mr Sunak.
Ahead of a report on the plot in The Times, Mr Dry makes a statement saying the Tories were heading “for the most almighty of defeats” unless Mr Sunak was replaced.
The rebel group is based in central London and is said to be working with around 10 Tory MPs – including Ms Braverman, who was sacked as home secretary by Mr Sunak in November.
Claims by Frost allies based on poll challenged by independent experts
The British Polling Council (BPC) reveals that it is looking into the Lord Frost-organised megapoll which caused such a stink in mid-January.
The watchdog said it wanted to make sure YouGov was “formally hired by this organisation” – the Conservative Britain Alliance. It later releases a statement saying “there is no reason at present to believe that YouGov have not met their obligations”.
Frost told by Sunak ally to reveal who paid for poll – or be thrown out
It emerges that the Conservative leader of the Lords, Lord True, is ordering Lord Frost to reveal the names of secret backers who funded the megapoll or be stripped of the Tory whip.
But the right-wing former Brexit minister is refusing to say, and won’t reveal if foreign cash paid for the £40,000 exercise aimed at damaging Mr Sunak.
Lord Frost is said to have been warned that if the poll donor has backed Reform UK, then he will lose the whip for effectively “collaborating with another party.
Plotters eye by-elections and local elections for fresh push against Sunak
Allies of Sunak – keen to flush out the plotters before they can build support and strike again at the local elections – tell the Financial Times that they believe backers Ms Braverman are running the campaign.
Senior Sunak ally Harriet Baldwin suggests that the 1922 change its rules to raise the threshold of no-confidence letter from 15 per cent to 50 per cent – in order to prevent leadership elections.
But the idea quickly fails. 1922 Committee chiefs reject the idea of more than tripling the number of Tory MPs who would have to submit letters.
Despite the very small number of MPs involved, the anti-Sunak schemers are not giving up just yet. One told Politico: “There are plenty of moments coming up – by-elections, the local elections, Reform continuing to tick up in the polls or if Farage entered the scene. It’s about making the case and seeing if people will come round.”
One Tory insider told The Independent that “although there’s enough time for another surprise or two” before the May local elections, with March Budget drama and legal difficulty in getting Rwanda flights started still to come.