Second minister of day announces exit from Parliament adding to Tory headache to fill '150 empty candidate spots'

23 May 2024, 17:34 | Updated: 23 May 2024, 21:05

Sunak on the campaign trail today (left), with Huw Merriman (top) and Jo Churchill (bottom)
Sunak on the campaign trail today (left), with Huw Merriman (top) and Jo Churchill (bottom). Picture: Alamy

By Christian Oliver

The Conservative Party still needs to fill some 150 candidate spots six weeks out from the country heading to the polls - a headache further exacerbated after two ministers today announced they would not contest their seats.

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Work and Pensions Minister Jo Churchill and Transport Minister Huw Merriman both said they would not seek re-election on July 4.

Around 70 Conservative MPs have announced they are throwing in the political towel, but the party still needs to fill even more spots on polling cards across the country.

Ms Churchill, MP for Bury St Edmunds, said she had reached the decision to step away from Parliament for "family reasons", while Mr Merriman, the MP for Bexhill and Battle, did not specify the reason for his departure but said he was "looking forward to a new journey".

The Conservatives are facing an uphill battle to stay in government after Rishi Sunak pulled the election trigger last night despite his party remaining 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party in the polls.

Follow the LBC live General Election blog for all the twists and turns of the campaign train and listen live to LBC on Global Player, our official app

Rishi Sunak is shown the brewing process during a visit to the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery in Barry, south Wales
Rishi Sunak is shown the brewing process during a visit to the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery in Barry, south Wales. Picture: Alamy

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It comes as Mr Sunak scored an own goal as he kicked off his election campaign at a South Wales brewery.

The prime minister asked the workers whether they were looking forward to the football later this summer as a potential source of revenue, despite Wales not qualifying for the Euro 2024 tournament.

There was an awkward pause after Mr Sunak asked: "So are you looking forward to all the football?"

One brewery employee answered: "We're not so invested in it," to which another responded: "That's because you guys aren't in it".

The Prime Minister nonetheless insisted that "it'll be a good summer of sport".

The teetotal Tory leader was shown brewing processes at the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery in Barry with Wales Secretary David TC Davies and Vale of Glamorgan MP Alun Cairns.

He told staff they were "part of a proper industry that we're keen to support", mentioning a "Brexit pubs guarantee" and support with business rates.

The brewery visit was part of Mr Sunak's whistlestop campaigning tour of all four nations of the UK a day after he announced a July 4 General Election.

He earlier answered questions from workers at William West Distribution in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, and is heading up to Scotland later on Thursday.

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Around 20 Labour MPs are also standing down ahead of the next election, but it's understood the party has filled almost all of its candidate positions.

Sir Keir Starmer fired off the first day of campaigning by heading to Gillingham where he said he was pleased the prime minister had called the General Election.

The Labour leader told reporters: "I am pleased the Prime Minister has called this election, because this is the change the country needs and has been waiting for for a very, very long time.

"Now the power is with the voters. It is their choice, and they have the choice now to vote for Labour and a better future for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country."

He also claimed Mr Sunak never believed in the Rwanda plan and called an election early so it would not tested before polling day.

"Rishi Sunak clearly does not believe in his Rwanda plan. I think that's been clear from this morning, because he's not going to get any flights off.

"I think that tells its own story. I don't think he's ever believed that plan is going to work, and so he has called an election early enough to have it not tested before the election.

"We have to deal with the terrible loss of control of the border under this Government, we have to tackle the small boats that are coming across - nobody but nobody should be making that journey.

"But the serious response to that, rather than the gimmick from the Government is to smash the gangs with a new border command that will work across countries to take those gangs down and stop this vile trade."

Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner during a visit to Gillingham Football Club
Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner during a visit to Gillingham Football Club. Picture: Alamy

Elsewhere, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey vowed his party would win seats from the Conservatives as he promised he would deliver the change the country desperately needs.

Sir Ed was in the ultra-marginal seat of Cheltenham for the first full day of campaigning after Rishi Sunak called a General Election for July 4.

The Cheltenham seat is held by Justice Secretary Alex Chalk who secured a majority of just 981 votes over Liberal Democrat opponent Max Wilkinson at the last election.

The Lib Dems, who held the seat from 1992 to 2015, could win the seat back this time and hope to build on a series of eye-catching by-election successes.

During an election rally with party activists, Sir Ed said: "For far too long people across the UK have been let down and taken for granted by this Conservative Government and this out-of-touch Conservative Party.

"But with this election we have the chance to win the change the country so desperately needs.

Ed Davey speaks on a potential coalition with Labour

John Swinney gives a speech at the launch of the SNP's General Election campaign at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh
John Swinney gives a speech at the launch of the SNP's General Election campaign at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh. Picture: Alamy

The Scottish First Minister was also on the election path and he said there was "no doubt" that the SNP could win the election despite recent polling.

Speaking at an event in Edinburgh as he launched his party's election campaign, Mr Swinney said: "I will never take anything for granted, but I have no doubt the SNP can win this election and that's what I intend to do - to lead us to victory in this election."

In recent months, the lead the SNP has enjoyed for a decade in Scotland has shrunk, with a YouGov survey released earlier this month showing a 10-point gap between the SNP and Labour.

He said he was "relishing the opportunity" to fight a campaign of "hope and unity" in the coming weeks.

Telling the assembled MSPs and activists that he wants to "unite Scotland for independence", Mr Swinney said: "I'm relishing the opportunity to campaign across this modern, diverse and beautiful country.

"I can't, of course, make any promises about the outcome, that's for the voters to decide, but I can promise you this - the SNP will be fighting an energetic, optimistic campaign full of enthusiasm, a campaign infused with hope for a better future.

"I'll be leading that campaign from the front - I'll travel the length and breadth of Scotland bringing that campaign of hope and unity.

"I can't wait to get started - let's get out there and put Scotland first."