Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year looms

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Rishi Sunak could face a nightmare year in 2023 (Image: VALDA KALNINA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Rishi Sunak could face a nightmare year in 2023 (Image: VALDA KALNINA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Rishi Sunak is finally in 10 Downing Street, with his heavy damask curtains and hand-gilded cornicing.

But he might not get to enjoy his sumptuously-decorated flat for very long, as Labour fly ahead on 48% - double the Tory vote share.

It’s now more than a year since Keir Starmer was consistently behind in the polls, not helped by months of government calamity which crashed the mortgage market.

At the same time Mr Sunak is having to deal with a recession, soaring energy bills, an NHS in crisis and surging small boat crossings.

All that is making Tory MPs very jittery. Many of them believe 2023 will be Rishi Sunak’s - and their own - final full year in office.

Teachers, civil servants and train drivers walk out in biggest strike in decade rridqqieqiqerinvTeachers, civil servants and train drivers walk out in biggest strike in decade

Some Tories believe the next election will either be a repeat of 1992, where John Major slipped back into office, or 1997 where he was wiped out.

Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year loomsRishi Sunak is relying on the public to turn against strikers - and his MPs to stick with him (AFP via Getty Images)

One former minister we spoke to has essentially given up and is taking on outside work in preparation for a possible defeat.

Another former member of the government told us bluntly that they wouldn’t be an MP in two years’ time - despite their best efforts.

Many including Theresa May believe Mr Sunak can revive Tory fortunes, and after all, he's only been in the top job for a couple of months.

But here are the biggest bear traps waiting for him, his party and the country in the next year.

Strikes

Firefighters, teachers and junior doctors could soon join the railway workers, paramedics, nurses and Border Force officers already on strike.

But instead of negotiating over pay with 5.7million public sector workers, Mr Sunak appears to be banking on the public turning against them.

That is a big gamble when a recent poll found the public, overall, back nearly every single sector striking over pay and conditions.

Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year loomsRishi Sunak with a shipyard worker (PA)

More people support than oppose walkouts by nurses, teachers, posties, doctors, bus drivers, refuse collectors, railway workers and aviation workers, the Savanta poll on December 16-18 found.

Only barristers and local government staff had more people against them than with them.

Richard 'shuts up' GMB guest who says Hancock 'deserved' being called 'd***head'Richard 'shuts up' GMB guest who says Hancock 'deserved' being called 'd***head'

Savanta also found 54% of people blamed the government for the nurses’ strike, with only 27% blaming the trade unions.

The new head of the TUC has warned strikes could roll on to summer and he’s willing to keep battling over 2022 pay as 2023 talks roll around.

Some Tory MPs had already called for the government to meet nurses in the middle in their pay demand. Those calls could grow louder.

Economy and energy

Millions of families face a big cost-of-living hit in April, when the average energy bill will rise from £2,500 to £3,000 a year.

At the same time, some projections say the economy will spend the whole of 2023 in the longest recession for around a century.

Cost of living payments worth £900 for benefit claimants, £300 for pensioners and £150 for those on disability benefits will be spread over more than a year.

And inflation is finally expected to start cooling off. But experts say it could take years for mortgage rates to come down, as millions come up for renewal.

The Resolution Foundation think tank has warned families to prepare for a ‘groundhog year’, saying pay will continue falling in real terms until the second half of 2023 as inflation strips out wage increases.

The typical household energy bill is set to rise £900 to £2,450 in 2023, up from £1,550 in 2022, and £1,170 in 2019.

Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year loomsThe PM has announced cost-of-living payments (Getty Images)

Local elections

We haven’t even mentioned the NHS crisis, where deaths in ambulances have doubled as sick people face long waits for 999 help.

Or the issue occupying many Tory MPs the most - the surge in people crossing the Channel in dangerous small boats.

Or Boris Johnson’s pledge to “level up” the country - which ministers say is alive, but critics say has been killed off as Tories’ minds turn to cuts.

Issues like this and more could hit Mr Sunak hard at the local elections on May 4, when more than 150 councils in England are set to go to the polls.

The last time these same seats were up for election in 2019, the Tories faced an onslaught losing 1,334 councillors and 44 councils. Slipping further would be a bad sign.

Labour MPs are quietly gleeful about the number of "straight switchers" - people coming back from blue to red.

But even without switchers, a senior Tory told us: "I have a lot of people on the doorstep saying we just can’t vote for you any more. They’re not switching to Labour or the Lib Dems, they just can’t back us. It'll either be like 1992 or 1997.”

Tories could go into revolt

Mr Sunak still technically has a working majority of 69 - albeit whittled down from more than 80 since 2019.

But you wouldn’t think it based on the number of issues where he’s already facing anger from his own back benches.

He has already U-turned on wind farms (make them easier to build) and housing (make it harder to build) in the face of two completely separate group of rebels.

Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year loomsWill Tory MPs stick with Rishi Sunak - or keep pressuring him over wedge issues? (Getty Images)

He is also likely to face heated debates on his bid to tighten immigration rules, his failure to reinstate foreign aid spending to 0.7% of national income, and his to-and-fro over whether to impose Covid restrictions on arrivals from China.

That’s not to mention the great dividing line with right-wing Tories - tax. They want a faster plan to cut tax, and after Mr Sunak quietly ditched Liz Truss’s plan to make the system better for families, they will not be happy. More of this below.

What does he stand for?

The problem, his critics say, is Mr Sunak is already limiting his ambitions and biding time until he’s forced out of office.

In private he’s been telling people he has three priorities - the NHS, small boats and the economy. All things that a manager rather than a visionary needs to sort out.

On top of that, he junked his entire leadership platform from the summer after Liz Truss trashed the economy. As a result, we simply don’t know what the PM’s position is on many issues dividing the country.

A Tory former Cabinet minister told the Mirror: "People are not happy. MPs are asking what do we stand for? No one knows any more.

"The problem is we’ve got managerial government. We’ve got two chancellors. He knows he’s only got two years and is not even looking beyond that.”

Forced out - or forced to call an election early?

Most in Westminster expect the next general election to only happen in 2024. Mr Sunak could technically call it as late as January 2025.

But that’s not accounting for the Tory mood. Tories Alex Chalk, Dominic Raab and Steve Brine are names that come up of big hitters who could lose their seats. The Lib Dems are even said to have their eyes on Michael Gove’s 18,000 majority.

Many MPs who face losing their seats are despondent and doing little about it at the moment, but some think that once the danger moment draws near, they might start thinking they've got nothing to lose.

A former Cabinet minister predicted revolts over wind farms and housing will be a “warm-up” act to bigger revolts in future - possibly even over a Budget event - as splits over high taxes are reopened.

“People are going to get more and more annoyed, but for now there's no vehicle for them to act through,” they said. “It wouldn't happen in Spring but it could blow up by the Autumn Statement next year.”

If that happened it could lead to three outcomes - Mr Sunak limps on in place, he’s forced out by the Tories, or he calls a snap election to unite his party.

Boris Johnson

Seven massive bear traps waiting for Rishi Sunak in 2023 as nightmare year loomsWill he be back? (Getty Images)

He told Britain “hasta la vista” and Boris Johnson has proven he wants to be back, with his aborted leadership bid halfway back from the Dominican Republic in November.

His loyal ally Nadine Dorries told the Express: “I think the local elections in May are going to be absolutely difficult for us but Rishi won't walk. It will take a little bit longer than that. I think there is a chance if the polls keep sliding by this time next year we will see back in Downing Street.”

Even if he doesn’t make another bid for power, he could still embarrass the new PM - either deliberately, or simply through embarrassing himself.

His final honours list - said to be packed with cronies - is still in the process of being signed off by the new Prime Minister, and he’s still yet to be grilled by the Privileges Committee which is probing if he lied over Partygate.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is becoming an outspoken backbencher. He still commands some respect against Tory members and could become a thorn in the side of his new boss.

Dan Bloom

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