Rishi Sunak has been told by Conservative MPs that he may have to sack his home secretary Suella Braverman if the government fails to tackle the small boats crisis and soaring migration numbers.
Ms Braverman was warned that the “knives are out”, despite surviving a difficult week in which she dodged an investigation into her handling of a speeding offence and faced a Tory backlash over record high net migration.
Senior Tories told The Independent she was “not out of the woods” and could be vulnerable to a reshuffle, having lost support in the party in recent months.
Moderates remain angry at her “freelancing” attack on multiculturalism and ‘woke’ politics at a right-wing conference, while some on the right think fellow cabinet minister Kemi Badenoch could make an ideal replacement if Mr Sunak decides to cut ties.
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said: “The prime minister has shown an exceptional degree of loyalty to Suella Braverman, given how she has been rallying the Tory right recently.”
The chairman of defence select committee added: “She should now respond by reciprocating that loyalty – recognising that another further rocking of the boat hinders our chances of winning.”
One senior MP said: “The knives are out – some MPs and civil servants are clearly out to get her. She certainly has some supporters on the right, but some prefer Kemi [Badenoch]. So she has to be very careful and tone down her rhetoric because it’s not helping.”
Mr Sunak is also under pressure over the record net migration figure – forced to deny he has lost control of the system after the numbers rose from 488,000 to 606,000 in a single year.
Tory MPs, preparing to face aggrieved constituents during the parliamentary recess, urged him to consider further restrictions to salary thresholds for overseas workers and fresh curbs on foreign students.
One red wall MP, who is expecting to face a “blizzard of angry messages” from local voters, said: “He [Mr Sunak] is obviously desperate to sort small boats – but it’s not clear whether he cares about legal migration because of the push for economic growth.”
One senior Tory said colleagues were growing “frustrated” and “nervous” about whether Mr Sunak could deliver a clear economic recovery – with inflation proving stubborn that expected and Jeremy Hunt signalling he is ready to accept a recession if interest rate hikes help curb ongoing price rises.
“It’s only MPs who didn’t like [Mr Sunak] him already who are foaming at the mouth at this point. But he has to get immigration down. We get the economy is the big election focus. But immigration is a big issue voters are angry about.”
Some Tory MPs believed that Ms Braverman is acting as “shield” for Mr Sunak and No 10 if the government faces more criticism over its “stop the boats” plan in the event that Channel migrants cannot be deported in significant numbers once her Illegal Migration Bill is passed.
But the “shield” may have to be replaced to give someone else a chance to push on immigration before the election. One senior Tory figure said: “She’s there to take the flak, but she has to be careful. Hers is not a style that appeals to many people.”
One backbencher said: “Lots of people don’t like her, so she’s not out of the woods. If she can’t show she delivering on small boats then I would have thought she could be gone in a reshuffle later in the year.”
Mr Sunak said he had decided an investigation into Ms Braverman’s speeding offence was “not necessary” after she initially asked civil servants to help her attend a private speed awareness course rather than join members of the public.
Mr Sunak has refused to trigger an inquiry into Ms Braverman’s previous, undeclared links to Rwanda, revealed by The Independent earlier this week.
After clearing her of any ministerial code breach over the speeding row, the PM has decided against a probe into Ms Braverman’s failure to formally disclose years of work training Rwandan government lawyers between 2010 and 2015.
The Independent has contacted the Home Office for comment.