(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s chances of winning the next UK election have already been written off by most in Westminster. Yet close allies worry the challenge is becoming even harder than it should be because one of own his Cabinet ministers is positioning to succeed him as Conservative Party leader.

The prime minister’s office is increasingly concerned by Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, according to ministers, lawmakers and aides who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party politics. One said the 44-year-old Badenoch, who is also the bookmakers’ favorite to be the next Tory leader, is rapidly emerging as Sunak’s chief political headache.

A glance at recent newspaper headlines is enough to explain why. Badenoch has made a series of interventions on high-profile issues viewed as priorities for grassroots Conservative Party members who get to choose the next leader.

In December, it emerged Badenoch had pushed for a harder line on Sunak’s flagship migration policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, something Tory members view as one of the most important issues facing the country.

Weeks later, a group of former government advisers briefed journalists that Sunak was leading the party to electoral oblivion and that he should be replaced by Badenoch. She swiftly distanced herself from the group, though she faced some embarrassment when it was then reported she was in a WhatsApp group called — jokingly, some members said — the “Evil Plotters.”

The noise has picked up this month. She waded into a row over transgender rights with a post on the social media site X — not signed off by Sunak’s aides — accusing opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer of trying to politicize the murder of a teenager. She also became embroiled in a public spat with a former Post Office official she alleged was the subject of a bullying investigation when she fired him. Sunak’s spokespeople refused to endorse her claim.

In some respects, it’s consistent with the abrasive reputation Badenoch has built up. She’s publicly argued with journalists and often inserted herself into conversations about core Tory issues in a way that her colleagues suspect is motivated by her leadership ambitions, one Conservative MP said.

Observers say it appears more calculated recently. After Sunak triggered outrage with a jibe about gender identity backfired in the House of Commons, Badenoch’s decision to double-down played directly to the audience of Tory members who are critical of transgender rights.

Targeting a former Post Office official is also safe ground politically amid the furor over wrongful convictions of staff, yet her intervention did Sunak few favors by drawing further attention to the slow payment of compensation.

Spokespeople for Sunak and Badenoch declined to comment.

Skepticism about Badenoch’s motives is growing in Sunak’s inner circle, according to people familiar with their thinking. There’s frustration because they want to focus on an economy expected to improve before voters cast their ballots, and build a presidential-style campaign led by the premier.

One said Badenoch had replaced Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary sacked by Sunak, as his team’s least favorite Cabinet member. 

It’s a far cry from when Sunak’s chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith, used to praise Badenoch at weekly meetings of government advisers. That has stopped in the last few months, one person said. According to a Conservative MP, Sunak doesn’t have any leverage over Badenoch to rein her in, and warned he cannot afford to lose her from his Cabinet without facing a leadership challenge.

Badenoch, a former associate director at the private bank Coutts, has risen up the ministerial ranks rapidly since becoming an MP in 2017. A keen supporter of Brexit, she stood in the leadership contest ultimately won by Liz Truss in 2022. Under Sunak, she first served as trade secretary before the premier added the business department to her portfolio. She’s also the equalities minister, though the right-leaning press have dubbed her the “anti-woke warrior.”

One minister said the inevitability of the Tories’ defeat had drained Sunak of his authority and caused a breakdown in discipline among Tory MPs, branding them a rabble. That played into the latest Conservative turmoil, when MP Lee Anderson took aim at Labour’s Muslim Mayor London Sadiq Khan, accusing him of handing over the capital to his Islamist “mates.”

Sunak suspended Anderson, but triggered a backlash from the MP’s supporters on the right of the Conservative Party. Badenoch again weighed in, posting on X that she opposed the concept of “Islamophobia,” instead preferring the term “anti-Muslim hatred.” That’s another distinction welcomed by the Tory right.

Responding to Badenoch’s momentum, more centrist Conservatives are trying to lay down a marker. Security minister Tom Tugendhat was due to appear for the government on a morning broadcast round on Tuesday, but was pulled by Sunak’s office because he planned to strongly condemn Anderson. MPs in the so-called One Nation caucus launched an unofficial “Anyone But Kemi” drive.

At a party fund-raiser with dozens of leading donors on Thursday, Home Secretary James Cleverly attracted attention as he worked the room. Both Tugendhat and Cleverly, as well as Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, are now seen as more likely leadership candidates from the center-right than Penny Mordaunt, the one-time favorite who is in danger of losing her parliamentary seat, according to multiple Tories from that wing of the party.

To be sure, Badenoch doesn’t have the right of the party sewn up. According to Chris Hopkins, director of the pollster Savanta, Badenoch is less popular than her rivals in a survey of people who voted Conservative in the 2019 general election. Still, her name recognition was also lower, Hopkins said. 

“It might not be such a bad idea for the Conservative Party to choose a relative unknown to lead them in opposition, if the election results in the change of government that polling currently suggests,” he said.

Some prominent figures on the Tory right said she would struggle to win over Boris Johnson supporters, due to accusations in a book by ex-Tory MP Nadine Dorries that Badenoch plotted against the former premier. 

Braverman is another seen as having leadership ambitions, though she has relatively few supporters in the parliamentary party, people familiar with the matter said. Instead Priti Patel, another former Home Secretary, is talked about as an under-priced candidate from the right, they said. That’s partly because she has kept a low profile — political Tory wisdom is that early plotters rarely come out on top — and because she is likely to keep her parliamentary seat in Essex even if the Conservatives suffer an electoral whitewash.

The lack of discipline is becoming so harmful that some Conservatives speculate Sunak could bring forward the election date to May — he has previously said he expects it in the second half of 2024. Sunak’s team fears Braverman and even Badenoch are preparing pressure on the premier to shift the campaign away from the economy to a tougher line on immigration. The premier has moved to counter that with strong language about pro-Palestine marches late Friday.

But one prominent Tory summed up the view in Cabinet: Sunak’s government is all but finished, and everything now is about the leadership after the election.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.