(Bloomberg) -- A senior Conservative member of Parliament publicly called for Rishi Sunak to quit, in the latest sign of the prime minister’s failure to pacify rebellions in the ruling party ahead of a UK vote this year.
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Simon Clarke, who was a Cabinet minister during Liz Truss’s brief premiership and served as chief secretary to the Treasury when Sunak was chancellor, said in a newspaper commentary that the premier is leading the Tories to “impending catastrophe” in an election “where we will be massacred.”
“Rishi Sunak has sadly gone from asset to anchor,” Clarke wrote in his Daily Telegraph column published late Tuesday. “We can change leader, and give our party and country a fighting chance.”
The intervention comes just days after Sunak successfully pushed his signature anti-migration legislation through the House of Commons, despite 11 “No” votes from Tory rebels including Clarke, who argued the bill didn’t go far enough. That result indicated Sunak’s opponents don’t have the numbers to oust Sunak, and the immediate reaction to Clarke’s op-ed bolstered that view.
Former Home Secretary Priti Patel on X described it as a “facile and divisive self-indulgence” that would only help the poll-leading opposition Labour Party. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis called Clarke’s article “silly.” Speaking on the government’s broadcast round on Wednesday, minister Kevin Hollinrake said Clarke’s “is not the overwhelming view of our party.”
Still, there are reasons for Sunak’s team to worry. Clarke’s is just the latest broadside against the prime minister carried by the Telegraph, whose readers are considered to be representative of grassroots Tories. The newspaper last week ran a YouGov poll funded by a group called the Conservative Britain Alliance on its front page showing the Tories headed for electoral oblivion.
The survey and its implications were presented in the paper by David Frost, who was the UK’s Brexit negotiator under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In the never-ending theater of Tory faction-fighting, Frost is allied with the group that blames people like Sunak for ousting Johnson in 2022.
Antipathy toward Sunak on the right of the Conservative Party was laid bare during the Commons votes on his plan deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Two deputy party chairman quit over the legislation, arguing it was too weak to deliver on Sunak’s promise to stop what the government calls illegal migration.
The question is what happens next, because while the votes showed the rebels are willing to make politics uncomfortable for Sunak, it also laid bare the wider party’s unwillingness to do anything that would trigger another leadership change before Britons go to the polls.
There are two key thresholds that the rebels would have to meet to oust Sunak. The first is mustering letters of no confidence from 15% of Conservative MPs, meaning more than 50 Tories. If a vote was triggered, it would take a majority of the party to end Sunak’s premiership.
Predicting who will send letters is difficult, given they are private and the threshold can be met suddenly.
But the challenge facing the rebels is exacerbated by the fact they do not agree themselves on who should take Sunak’s place. The squabble over the Rwanda bill was also a proxy for a future leadership battle that most expect to happen after the election, which polls show the Tories are likely to lose.
There are a slew of Tory MPs seen to have leadership ambitions including former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who was fired by Sunak last year, and her immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who quit. Even Truss, despite being ousted in record time by her own MPs, has chosen not to go quietly.
Against that backdrop, few expect Clarke’s to be the pivotal move. When Sunak took office in October 2023, he urged Tory MPs to get behind the incoming prime minister, saying on X that “he has my support.” It’s far from clear he can persuade Conservative MPs to get behind his U-turn.
What appears certain is that his intervention will give Sunak’s political opponents an easy line of attack. Labour leader Keir Starmer has the first opportunity at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
--With assistance from Alex Wickham and Kitty Donaldson.
(Updates with reaction from fifth paragraph.)
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