Another political headache for Rishi Sunak - as things start to look like John Major years of scandal

This is a tale that's more than just a marmalade dropper. It's a story so astounding you have to pick yourself up off the floor. 

Mark Menzies MP last December allegedly made a 3.15am phone call to an elderly party volunteer asking for £5,000 as a matter of "life or death" because he had been locked up by "bad people".

To secure his release, the money was paid by his office manager from her personal account and reimbursed from funds raised from donors, according to The Times. The newspaper also alleges Mr Menzies received thousands of pounds from campaign funds into his personal bank account which were used for personal medical expenses.

Politics latest: Big questions for Sunak

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I will say from the outset that these are claims Mr Menzies, the MP for the Lancashire seat of Fylde, "strongly disputes".

In a statement to The Times, he said: "I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further."

But when the story broke, Conservative chief whip Simon Hart suspended Mr Menzies from the parliamentary party pending the outcome of an investigation.

It is a mega story. Not just because of the staggering, astounding, eye-popping - take your pick - nature of the allegations, but the questions it throws up: If this had happened over three months ago, why is it only now that the Conservative Party are suspending the whip? Was there misuse of money and what are the implications of that? Can Mr Menzies really continue as an MP?

And how much will this hurt the Conservatives, who have for weeks been chasing Angela Rayner over allegations - which she denies - she avoided paying capital gains tax on the sale of her council house a decade ago, when these allegations around their own MP were swirling in the background?

'Surprised if he lasts the week'

First off, Conservative peer Ruth Davidson thinks Mr Menzies will have no option but to resign and trigger a by-election in another danger zone seat given the Conservatives have a 16,000 majority - the sort of lead that Labour and Lib Dems have been repeatedly overturning in by-elections of late.

Ruth Davidson describes the story as "jaw-dropping" on Electoral Dysfunction this week, and reckons that Mr Menzies is going to have to resign, saying she'd be "surprised" if he lasts the week.

She adds: "The Tories were supposedly told about this three months ago, and this is the first we're hearing about it.

"And by reading the story, it looks very much like this lady told her local association, raised the red flag, then told the parliamentary authorities.

"The chief whip then told CCHQ, which is Tory HQ. Nothing's happened and now she's quoted in the newspapers.

"So, I mean, it does appear that there's local association wrath about the way they've been treated by this MP. So, you know, I think this is a very difficult one, and I would find it difficult to believe that an investigation can be held and he can be cleared in time to stand a general election.

"In fact, I would be surprised if he survives the week here and doesn't just resign."

Jess Philips agrees and tells us that he will "have no choice but to resign and force a by-election".

For obvious reasons, that will be something the party and Rishi Sunak will want to avoid, with the Conservatives already being hammered in the three by-elections held this year and expecting to lose Blackpool South next month.

Half of Labour's top ten by-election swings in history have come in the last 18 months.

Mr Sunak will not want any more record breakers if he can help it in this election year.

"I don't think Mark Menzies wants to walk away right now. But I also don't think that the Conservatives want to have a by-election this close to a general election," explains Ruth.

"Yes, they have a 16,000 majority, but then if they lose it, that makes it worse.

"However, it's the sort of seat where if it's just in the mix as part of a general election, it's probably not right at the top of the kind of target seats for the Labour Party.

"So they probably get to hold the seat if he stays there. Even as independent, the Tories more than likely hold the seat at a general. If it goes to a by-election, all bets are off."

'It feels end of days'

Whatever happens next, I have little doubt that his story will stay in the headlines, giving the prime minister yet another headache ahead of the local elections on 2 May that he just doesn't need as he makes some progress on his proposed smoking ban and flagship Rwanda bill.

Ruth likens the string of scandals to the John Major years, when his government was rocked by a series of unflattering revelations, from the Neil Hamilton "cash-for-questions" scandal to stories of extra-marital affairs.

She says: "I think in terms of the mood in the Tory party, there is that sense that every time we start to get on the front foot about something, something comes and knocks us off.

"And also just the number now of scandals that are coming along.

"It feels sort of end of days. It feels like the 1992 to 1997 sort of parliament.

"And you can kind of see the party sort of splintering in front of your eyes and, and yeah, I mean, you will probably get on to it, but in the week that you also have Liz Truss reminding everybody that she exists, you know, it's not a good week for the Conservative Party."

Jess also thinks there's a bit of schadenfreude about all of this, given the vigour with which the Conservatives have leapt on matters relating to Angela Rayner's council house before she was an MP.

She said: "The Tories have been literally salivating over Angela Rayner's nine-year-ago sale of a council house in her blended family… and there's no reason why she shouldn't have to answer those questions.

"But when you put this into this context… it's a bit like, in a sort of old-school way, a Looney Tunes cartoon where somebody sets a really, really, really elaborate trap and then the anvil falls on their head.

"It does feel a little bit like the Tories have misstepped on this. And it was always so obvious that going after Angela Rayner in this way was always going to come and bite them in the arse."

From the developing story around Mr Menzies, to the publicity blitz from Liz Truss over her new book Ten Tears To Save The West, there is plenty of dysfunction for us to chew over this week.

And spare a thought for Mr Sunak - having made progress on his smoking ban, and working hard to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East, he's been laid low again by political storms.