New blow for Sunak as sitting cabinet minister says he will not stand at election

Rishi Sunak has suffered another blow after a sitting cabinet minister announced he will not be standing at the next general election.

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said it had been an “honour and a privilege to serve” as he became the 65th Conservative to announce he is leaving parliament.

His decision, while representing a seat with a majority of 26,000, will do little to dispel Tory fears over their chances at the election.

His announcement came just hours after another soon to depart Tory MP, ex-chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, suggested Tory MPs should not have been “spooked” into ousting Boris Johnson.

Mr Heaton-Harris’s move means he joins a Tory exodus that includes former PM Theresa May, ex-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and former defence secretary Ben Wallace.

Mr Sunak has also suffered the shock defections of former Conservative MPs Natalie Elphicke and Dan Poulter to Labour in recent weeks.

In a letter announcing his decision, Mr Heaton-Harris thanked Mr Sunak as well as former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

He added that he would be continuing to campaign for the Conservatives as the “only party that has and can deliver for the whole of the United Kingdom”.

First elected as an MP in 2010, the fierce Eurosceptic was appointed Tory chief whip under Mr Johnson.

Later that year, Ms Truss made him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a role he kept when Mr Sunak took over as prime minister.

At the time the Stormont powersharing institutions had collapsed because of a DUP protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The Stormont Executive returned in February of this year, in the wake of the Windsor Framework, which Mr Heaton-Harris said “both solved many of the major practical issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, put in place as we left the EU, and helped reset our countries’ relationship with our European neighbours”.

He added: “I strongly believe the conditions now exist for Northern Ireland to thrive, with privileged access for manufactured goods into the EU single market, while being an integral part of our UK internal market and being able to benefit from the international trade deals we negotiate; it finds itself in a remarkable favourable position – and as Northern Ireland thrives, our Union will strengthen.”

Mr Heaton-Harris added: “I know we are not far from a general election, an election in which I will do everything I can to see you returned as prime minister, I would be honoured if you allowed me to continue as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland until that time.

“There are a still a number of pieces of unfinished business I wish to complete and I love the people, place and job, but obviously would understand if you feel it best to replace me.”

Mr Zahawi, who played a key role in persuading the former prime minister to stand down, said: “I wish we had held our nerve” and stuck with Mr Johnson.

He told the Sunday Times that the former prime minister, who quit after a series of scandals, was the most “consequential” leader since Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Zahawi was made chancellor in July 2022 by Mr Johnson in the wake of Rishi Sunak and dozens of other ministers quitting his government.

Two days later Mr Zahawi publicly called for Mr Johnson to stand down, having privately told him “the herd was stampeding” and unless he resigned “they are going to drag your carcass out of this place”.

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