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Rishi Sunak‘s woes deepened today as a defence minister quit amid a bitter row over funding – with the Tory exodus gathering pace.

The PM has been struggling to stabilise his premiership after the Budget failed to shift the political dial, and the party was engulfed in a race row over donor Frank Hester. 

Last night Mr Sunak finally moved to rule out fevered speculation about an election at the start of May, with the Labour lead over 20 points in many polls.

James Heappey has informed his constituency association in Wells that he will not stand again when the ballot is held, saying he wants to ‘prioritise family’ and ‘pursue a different career’.

He is expected to stand down from his government role at the end of the month.  

Mr Heappey is said to have voiced frustration internally with the defence funding settlement, after the Budget did not offer more money. However, it was apparently not the main factor in his resignation. 

Rishi Sunak has been struggling to stabilise his premiership after the Budget failed to shift the political dial, and the party was engulfed in a race row over donor Frank Hester

James Heappey has reportedly informed his constituency association in Wells that he will not stand again at the election

James Heappey has reportedly informed his constituency association in Wells that he will not stand again at the election

Mr Sunak finally moved to rule out fevered speculation about an election at the start of May, with the Labour lead over 20 points in many polls

He is the 62nd Tory MP to announce he is stepping down, including this week ex-PM Theresa May and former Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis.

Earlier this week Defence Secretary Grant Shapps threw his weight behind the push to increase military spending to 3 per cent of GDP.

Adding pressure on Mr Sunak, he said more cash was needed to match the threat posed by Vladimir Putin.

Currently the UK spends 2.27 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Mr Shapps said he was in favour of spending 3 per cent and called for its inclusion in the Conservatives‘ election manifesto.

Mr Sunak yesterday insisted the Tories are ‘united’ despite a rising sense of panic over the ‘massacre’ the party is facing.

The PM said the country had ‘turned a corner’ after ‘a difficult couple of years’ as he was challenged on fresh rumours of a coup bid.

He also underlined that his ‘working assumption’ remains that the election will happen in the second half of the year.  

Some Cabinet ministers have been discussing what would happen if Mr Sunak was replaced before an election, even though they remain supportive, according to Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Tory MPs told MailOnline that plotting is reaching fever pitch in the corridors of Parliament. 

‘There is huge muttering,’ said one former Cabinet minister. ‘It is quite miserable as a Tory in the House of Commons at the moment. 

‘Normally there have been two or three people huddled together plotting. But now it is five or six in the Tea Room.’

The MP said Mr Sunak ‘can’t do anything right’, and was being buffeted by different groups in Downing Street and CCHQ who cannot agree on tactics. 

‘Some want to go in May and others want to hold back,’ they said.

There have been claims circulating that Mr Sunak is preparing to trigger an election next week to take place on May 2 – although many regard that as an attempt to frighten rebels into staying in line.

Some Tories are also angry with ‘Yorkshire Mafia’ allies of Mr Sunak including former chief whip Julian Smith, who has a constituency neighbouring his Richmond seat and is regarded as highly influential.

However, No10 insiders have been voicing defiance, mocking those on manoeuvres against the PM as lazy.

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