Rishi Sunak faces three challenging by-elections in the coming weeks after former British cabinet minister Nigel Adams announced he would quit the House of Commons with immediate effect.
The decision by Adams – an ally of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson – immediately sparked speculation of a concerted attempt to undermine the Downing Street incumbent.
Sunak’s Conservative Party must also defend the seats of former Johnson and another supporter, Nadine Dorries, who both resigned as MPs on Friday.
One Tory insider said on Saturday there would be “problems if we don’t do well” in the by-elections, describing them as the first big test of Sun’s leadership.
The atmosphere at the party “wasn’t good in the first place, and it makes people feel uneasy,” the person added.
Another Tory figure said: “It’s a headache – I think they (Sunak’s team) would be slightly better off without Boris in the long term, but it’s marginal because he’s on the sidelines.”
Adams enjoyed a huge majority of 20,137 votes in the seat of Selby and Ainsty, which he has held since it was created in 2010.
However, the British by-elections may bring surprising results. The Tories have lost several seats in Tiverton and Honiton, North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham by huge majorities over the past two years.
Many of Johnson’s supporters have never forgiven Sunak for resigning as chancellor almost a year ago, sparking a wider cabinet coup that forced the then-prime minister out of office.
“The counter-coup is well under way,” said David Bannerman, a former Tory MEP. “Sunak is on loan. Further by-elections are to be expected.”
Sir Simon Clarke, the former cabinet minister who was knighted by Johnson on Friday, emphatically described Adams as “loyal to the last”.
But one Tory MP said: “Boris and Nadine are selfish and they have lost. All this is done out of malice.”
A second Conservative MP said it “feels like the death knell of Boris’ support in Parliament”.
Adams resigned hours after Johnson announced his departure in protest at what he called the “kangaroo court” of the Privileges Committee, which is set to deliver a verdict on whether he lied to MPs about the Downing Street closing parties.
Johnson said on Friday night that he was leaving parliament “for now” because he believed the Conservative-majority committee had carried out a “political racket” against him after its initial findings were adopted this week.
Earlier on Friday, Downing Street published Johnson’s resignation honours, which awarded allies with peerages, knighthoods and other honours.
A group of four pro-Johnson Tory MPs – including Adams and Dorries – were expected to get the tickets, but some colleagues believe they were blocked by No 10 to avoid a by-election knock-out. Downing Street denied Sun’s direct involvement.
Former Culture Secretary Dorries resigned on Friday, triggering an imminent by-election in his constituency of Mid Bedfordshire, where he won a majority of 24,664.
The Conservatives will defend a narrower majority of 7,210 in Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge, west London, meaning Labor will take the constituency.
The other two Tory MPs who were expected to get peerage but did not are Scottish Secretary of State Alister Jack and former COP26 president Alok Sharma.