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Conservative MPs must oust Rishi Sunak or risk “extinction”, a former cabinet minister said on Tuesday, amid growing rightwing pressure on the prime minister.
Sir Simon Clarke aimed a volley of criticism at Sunak, saying in a newspaper article that the Tories should replace their party leader who had “sadly gone from asset to anchor”.
Clarke admitted some MPs would think it “ridiculous” that they should even consider ditching Sunak and replace him with a fourth Conservative prime minister in less than 18 months.
“But what could be more ridiculous than meekly sleepwalking towards an avoidable annihilation because we were not willing to listen to what the public are telling us so clearly?” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
Clarke, housing minister in Liz Truss’s shortlived administration, is a long-standing critic of Sunak but his intervention reflects growing hostility towards the prime minister in parts of the Tory right as the party prepares for a general election later this year.
Many Conservative MPs fear the party could shed votes to the right-wing Reform UK party, which was founded by leading Eurosceptic Nigel Farage. “If Nigel Farage returns to the fray, as looks increasingly likely, extinction is a very real possibility for our party,” Clarke wrote.
Downing Street was on Tuesday braced for the possibility that other admirers of Truss or Boris Johnson — whom she replaced as prime minister in September 2022 — could join the revolt and call publicly for Sunak to go.
A Tory spokesperson said the only person who would gain from Clarke’s attack was Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, adding: “This is a self-indulgent attempt to undermine the government at a critical moment for the country.”
Sunak is under no immediate threat: 53 Tory MPs would have to submit letters of no confidence in the prime minister to trigger a party leadership contest. Most Tory MPs believe such a contest would be electorally suicidal.
One Tory MP and Johnson supporter, Dame Andrea Jenkyns, claimed last week that 29 Tory MPs had submitted letters to party grandees. “We’ve got to replace Rishi,” she said.
A total of 60 Tory MPs defied Sunak last week by backing a move to toughen up his Rwanda asylum bill, ignoring warnings from the party’s election chief Isaac Levido, who said: “Divided parties fail.”
The rebellion was fuelled by publication of a YouGov “mega poll”, funded by anonymous Tory donors, which showed Sunak’s party was heading for a 1997-style election wipeout.
YouGov polling has also put the Tories on just 20 per cent — 27 percentage points behind Labour — with Sunak’s approval ratings slumping to -49, a level recorded by Johnson shortly before he left office.
Some Tories believe Clarke knows that Sunak is unlikely to be toppled before the election, but wants to blame the premier for what some in the party believe is inevitable defeat.
Sunak’s allies say some of the prime minister’s critics are gearing up for a battle to take control of the party after an election defeat. “Half our party has given up,” said one minister on Tuesday.
But mainstream figures on the Tory right were scornful of Clarke, who once served as Sunak’s deputy when he was chancellor. They accused him of pursuing his own leadership ambitions and making election defeat much more likely.
Dame Priti Patel, former home secretary, said: “Engaging in facile and divisive self indulgence only serves our opponents. It’s time to unite and get on with the job.”
David Davis, former Brexit secretary, said: “This is getting silly. The party and the country are sick and tired of MPs putting their own leadership ambitions ahead of the UK’s best interests.”
Former minister Damian Green, from the centrist One Nation Tory faction, said: “Simon Clarke is wrong and unwise to try to start another internal fight. Let’s start attacking our opponents, not each other.”
Clarke’s attack will provide helpful ammunition for Starmer who faces Sunak in the House of Commons at question time on Wednesday. Labour claimed the Tories had formed a “circular firing squad”.