RISHI SUNAK has just entered the most dangerous phase of his premiership – and one that could easily determine whether he stays in No10.
Having worked all weekend to get his Brexit deal for Northern Ireland over the line, he now faces the task of having to sell it to his own party.
And it is already clear his nemesis, Boris Johnson, could lead another major rebellion this week against Sunak, with the aim of ousting the PM.
There’s also a growing sense of alarm across the Tory Party about how the remaining Brexit issues in Northern Ireland are distracting both the Government and the country from other pressing problems.
Wasn’t Brexit meant to be done by now, voters are asking.
Sunak has been in the top job now for four months, but support for the Tories is still as flat as the pancakes voters tossed last week.
In the polls, the Conservatives are averaging a dismal 26 per cent and are trailing well behind Keir Starmer and the Labour Party by an astonishing 21 points.
Unless something changes — and changes fast — then Sunak and his party are heading for a bigger wipeout than the one delivered by Tony Blair in 1997.
And many other warning lights on the dashboard are flashing red.
Ask people who they think would best manage the economy and Brexit, and more now say Starmer than Sunak (though the winner, by a mile, is “none of them”).
So, what can Sunak do to turn the political equivalent of the Titanic around?
With rumours of a General Election as early as next spring, he and his team are gambling that once they get through the problems in Northern Ireland, they will be able to win over the country by passing their “five tests”.
They have promised to slash inflation in half, create better- paid jobs, reduce Britain’s eye-watering national debt, cut NHS waiting lists and stop the small boats in the Channel.
And there are tentative signs Sunak is starting to do just that.
Inflation just dropped to a five-month low of 10.1 per cent, while City geeks last week forecast that it will fall below two per cent before 2024.
And other new data is better than the doomsters predicted.
In the first ten months of the 2022/23 financial year, Britain has borrowed £30billion less than anticipated, while businesses and punters have been more active than expected — a key sign we might just avoid a major recession.
As usual, the pundits who predicted Britain would crash and burn got it wrong . . . again.
If things keep moving in this direction, then Sunak will be able to go to the country next year with what I am told will be his key message: “We are over the worst. We are turning things around. Don’t let the Labour Party ruin it.”
And by standing up to Nicola Sturgeon’s insane attempt to allow 16-year-olds to legally change gender, Sunak not only helped bring down the SNP leader and strengthen the Union, but showed nervous MPs he is up for taking a stand in the culture wars.
But make no mistake, many challenges remain.
Huge open goal
Aside from the ongoing drama in Northern Ireland, many Conservatives are now arguing, understandably, that better-than-expected economic news must pave the way for tax cuts next year, or sooner.
Why, they ask, when Britain needs investment more than ever, is the Government about to raise corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent?
They have a point.
And then there are the small boats.
Sunak can make much of the fact that when Keir Starmer set out Labour’s five goals this week, he failed to mention the immigration crisis.
But while this leaves a huge open goal for the PM, he can only kick a ball into it if his own Government gets control of the broken system.
Last week, remarkably, it was revealed that nearly 90,000 people claimed asylum in Britain last year, the highest total for almost 20 years.
Is this the “control” people thought they were getting when they voted for Brexit? Of course not — it’s the total opposite.
Much of this is also feeding the widespread view among both Sunak’s voters and MPs that he is still failing to make the most out of Brexit.
Britain outside the EU was supposed to be a low-tax, low-regulation, low-immigration country, but instead it’s turned into a high-tax, high-regulation, high-immigration country.
And there’s simply been much too little progress in signing new trade deals.
Then there’s Boris, whose refusal to back Sunak’s plan to fix Northern Ireland underlines how the former PM still has his eyes on the top job.
So, make no mistake — the clock is most definitely ticking.
And Sunak is not helped by the fact local elections will soon take place across crunch Red Wall seats in the spring.
My view, in short, is that he and his team need to work harder and faster to show voters and MPs they are delivering on those five priorities by the local elections on May 4.
Because if they don’t, then I suspect we will all soon hear a louder chorus of voices in Westminster speaking three words: Bring Back Boris.