New Tory chairman Greg Hands warned the party faced a “difficult” set of local polls in May but said he was focused on building a platform for a general election next year.
In a message to Tory supporters, urging them to become members and help swell the party’s war chest, he said “the next 18 months will see us win or lose the next general election”, although allies of the Prime Minister insisted no date had been fixed.
Mr Hands also defended the appointment of outspoken MP Lee Anderson as deputy party chairman, saying he was a “great asset” and was someone with “great integrity”.
May’s elections will give an early indication of the scale of the challenge facing Mr Sunak following months of opinion polls giving Labour a clear lead.
Mr Hands told GB News: “It’s not a secret to say that this year’s local elections will be a difficult set of local elections for the party.
“But the important thing is that we do as well as we can and set the platform for a general election next year.”
He told Sky News that the party “is overall in good shape”.
“Membership is improving, the financial position of the party, I think, is improving. I’m definitely up for it. I know Rishi Sunak is up for it.
“We’re really looking forward to taking on Sir Keir Starmer’s unreformed Labour Party and the other parties as well.
“I think the Conservative Party will have a really good story to tell at next year’s general election and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
In response to Mr Hands’ suggestion that an election would be held in 18 months, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said it was not a “fair characterisation” to claim that meant the election would be in August 2024.
He was not “definitively saying” when the next election would be, Rishi Sunak’s aide added.
The appointment of Mr Anderson, an MP from a so-called Red Wall seat with a tendency to make controversial comments, is seen as an attempt to balance giving the party chairmanship to a previously remain-supporting London MP in Mr Hands.
Mr Anderson has been dubbed “30p Lee” for claiming that meals could be prepared for that sum and suggesting people using food banks could not budget.
In 2021, when the men’s Euro 2020 football tournament was taking place, he vowed to boycott England matches in protest against the players’ anti-racism stance of taking the knee before matches.
Even when Gareth Southgate’s team got to the final, Mr Anderson said he would not tune in, although he admitted he might check the score on his phone.
Mr Hands declined to say whether he backed some of Mr Anderson’s past comments, but told LBC he had not “studied every single pronouncement made by Conservative backbenchers”.
He said he would not comment on things that had been said in the past, but was looking forward to working with Mr Anderson.
Asked if he or the party endorsed those various views, he said: “In terms of things that may or may not have been said in the past, I don’t have encyclopaedic knowledge of what everybody has ever said in the past.”
Ashfield MP Mr Anderson will have a “fairly wide-ranging role”, the Prime Minister’s press secretary said.
“Lee Anderson is a very hard-working MP, he’s an excellent campaigner, he is very popular, particularly in his constituency and he will do a fantastic job working with the new chairman to champion the Conservative Party and everything this Conservative government is doing,” she added.