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Tory MPs Cling To Hope That Calls For Rishi Sunak To Go Will Not "Cut Through" To Voters

Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

5 min read

A number of Conservative MPs are holding on to hope that former cabinet minister Simon Clarke's call for Rishi Sunak to be replaced as Prime Minister will not "cut through" with voters and have at least "united" most wings of the Conservative Party against another leadership election.

On Tuesday evening Clarke wrote an explosive op-ed for the Telegraph in which he called for Sunak to be removed as Prime Minister after claiming he was an “anchor” on the party's electoral prospects. The Tories have consistently been trailing Labour in the polls for over a year and are widely expected to lose the next general election, due this year.

Clarke, who was a staunch ally of former prime minister Liz Truss, and served in her fleeting government, claimed Sunak did not get “what Britain needs” and that to stick with Sunak would "give the Left a blank cheque to change Britain as they see fit”.

But several Conservative MPs believe that Clarke's opinion piece has achieved the opposite effect and has hardened the parliamentary party against the idea of holding another leadership challenge prior to the next general election. 

"I suspect this may deter others from following such a reckless, defeatist call for yet another leadership campaign so close to a general election," Former minister Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, told PoliticsHome.

"If he had hoped to rally others to his cause I suspect he actually helped the Party unify around Rishi Sunak."

A Tory MP on the moderate wing of the party felt confident Clarke's comments would not "cut through" to the public and was "Westminster bubble nonsense". "[Sunak should] ignore it and get on with his work, which is what I think he will do," they added. 

A senior Conservative, told PoliticsHome Clarke was a “self-indulgent wanker”, and felt he had united the Tory Party in a similar way to when Christian Wakeford, MP for Bury South, defected to the Labour Party in 2022. 

But not all Conservatives took such an optimistic view. A Conservative MP in the One Nation caucus told PoliticsHome that they believe Sunak should go "full Boris" and suspend rebel MPs like former prime minister Boris Johnson did with Brexit rebels in 2019.

"The majority is big enough and anything less will look weak and won't stop the decline," the MP said.

A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they were concerned Clarke's letter was damaging to the Conservative brand overall and "airs the divisions" of the party to the public again. They added that the next question should be who was working with Clarke to topple Sunak. “Whilst I am no fan of the PM, now is not the time for another leadership contest,” they added.

Clarke was Chief Secretary to the Treasury when Sunak was Chancellor and Boris Johnson was Prime Minister between September 2021 and September 2022. 

Clarke has recently been critical of the Prime Minister and the Government's flagship Rwanda Bill, where he voted against its third reading. He wrote an article for ConservativeHome where he claimed the party faced "utter disaster" if the party did not "deliver". 

It is understood that Truss was not aware of the article before it was published and is not supportive of what Clarke has said. PoliticsHome understands Ranil Jayawardena, who is another close ally of Clarke’s, has not submitted a letter of no confidence in Sunak.

Another Conservative MP told PoliticsHome it was "clear" after Clarke's letter that there was a "move to unseat Rishi and it is just a matter of when they face the challenge".

For a no confidence vote to be called in the Prime Minister, 15 per cent of the Conservative parliamentary party need to write to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee. 

Individual members from across the ‘five families’ have been meeting sporadically to discuss future leadership options, with suggested potential names including Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick and Priti Patel.

PoliticsHome understands these MPs are not planning on submitting letters of no confidence yet but are instead waiting for the upcoming by-election results and future polling to compare the Conservatives' standing to that of Reform UK.

One MP involved said they were waiting to see if there would be "more disasters" and admitted that they could move to Reform if they think there is a chance there would be no Red Wall MPs left after the next general election to "rebuild the party to the right in the way we would like”.

However, there are doubts over Clarke's assertion that a change in leader could change the party's fortunes. Historian Sir Anthony Seldon, who has written multiple biographies of British prime ministers, told PoliticsHome that the historical evidence was "singular and very clear" that a change in leadership so close to a general election would be ineffective in reversing the polls.

"People who know no history get very excited about seeing a change in leader as the panacea, opinions polls reversed, ten more years in power... but the truth is, it has never worked before," he said.

Senior Conservatives on Tuesday evening rallied behind the Prime Minister after Clarke’s op-ed in the Telegraph was published.

Dame Priti Patel posted on X, previously known as Twitter, that the Conservative Party must focus on uniting, as opposed to engaging in “facile and divisive self indulgence” in an attempt to bring down the leader.

Former cabinet minister David Davis posted on X that calls for another leadership election were “getting silly” and that the country was “sick and tired” of MPs putting their “own leadership ambitions ahead of the UK's best interests”.

“It is really about time that these people realise they have a duty to the country that is greater than their personal leadership ambitions,” Davis added.

Liam Fox said now was “not the time for “indulgence and tribalism in the party.” He claimed that those who “have an agenda to destabilise the government in an election year should understand the consequences”.

“Having been on the front bench for all 13 years in opposition, it is a miserable place. Be warned,” Fox wrote.

Additional reporting by Caitlin Doherty, Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, and Tali Fraser.

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