Sir Simon Clarke has compared himself to a man shouting “iceberg” in the face of approaching oblivion as he came under fire from senior Conservatives for demanding Rishi Sunak’s replacement.
The former Cabinet minister insisted he was acting alone rather than as part of an orchestrated plot as he acknowledged a “pretty hostile” response from many Tory MPs.
Home Secretary James Cleverly was among a string of current and former ministers slapping down Sir Simon for his attack on Mr Sunak.
Sir Simon, who served as Liz Truss’s levelling-up secretary, said the Conservatives will be “massacred” at the general election unless Mr Sunak is replaced.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer seized on the latest wave of Tory unrest, saying it is another example of “party first, country second”.
Defending his own intervention, Sir Simon told BBC News: “No one likes that guy that’s shouting ‘iceberg’ but I suspect that people will be even less happy if we hit the iceberg.
“And we are on course to do that. That is the point that I need to land with colleagues respectfully and calmly.
“We are not at the moment responding to the situation with the seriousness that it warrants.”
Sir Simon repeatedly declined to say who he wants to become Tory leader, but said there are a “number of people who could do it”.
“I don’t want to tarnish anyone by saying this. I’ve done this on my own, I’ve been really clear that I’ve done it deliberately on my own so I don’t make anyone else the subject of the sort of criticism that I’ve incurred,” he said.
Sir Simon said he has been on the receiving end of some “pretty hostile comments” and insisted his attack on Mr Sunak was not about his own leadership ambitions.
“This is absolutely not about Simon Clarke,” he said.
Meanwhile, The Sun newspaper reported that Will Dry had resigned as a special adviser to Mr Sunak with a warning that the Tories “are heading for the most almighty of defeats”.
Mr Cleverly warned about “foolish” infighting in an election year as he joined senior Tories in rallying around the Prime Minister.
The Home Secretary said: “I know Simon very well, I like him and respect him. I could not disagree with him more on this particular issue.
“If we were to do something as foolish as have an internal argument at this stage, all it would do is open the door for Keir Starmer, and Keir Starmer has no plan, would undo all the good work, take us right back to square one.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader seized on the Tory row.
“We have seen this story time and time again with this lot: party first, country second,” he said.
“Safely ensconced in Westminster, they get down to the real business of fighting each other to death. The country forced to endure their division and chaos, the longest episode of EastEnders ever put to film.”
Mr Sunak, who was loudly cheered by Tory MPs in a public display of support, ignored Sir Keir’s attacks and attacked the Labour leader’s record, saying “he is not a leader, he is a human weathervane”.
The latest round of the Tory civil war was sparked by a Telegraph newspaper column in which Sir Simon said “extinction is a very real possibility” for the party if Mr Sunak leads it into the election this year.
“The unvarnished truth is that Rishi Sunak is leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred,” he said.
The Conservative Democratic Organisation, led by allies of former prime minister Boris Johnson, said grassroots Tories are effectively “on strike” because of disillusionment with Mr Sunak.
— Conservative Democratic Organisation (@ConservativeDOr) January 24, 2024
The group’s chairman, former MEP David Campbell Bannerman, said: “Urgent change is needed. Sunak unfortunately has had his chance – and blown it.
“Members demand a leadership vote as soon as possible so we can turn things around and avoid electoral disaster. We need new management.”
But senior party figures hit back at the criticism of Mr Sunak, urging colleagues to “unite and get on with the job”.
Downing Street suggested Sir Simon does not enjoy wider support in the party.
Mr Sunak’s press secretary said: “This is one MP.”
My colleague Sir Simon Clarke MP is wrong. The way to win the next election is to tackle inflation and grow the economy. Rishi is doing just that. Division and another PM would lead to the certain loss of power. We need to focus on delivering for the public not divisive rowing.
— Rt. Hon Ben Wallace MP (@BWallaceMP) January 24, 2024
Former defence secretary Ben Wallace said: “My colleague, Sir Simon Clarke MP, is wrong. The way to win the next election is to tackle inflation and grow the economy.
“Rishi is doing just that. Division and another PM would lead to the certain loss of power. We need to focus on delivering for the public, not divisive rowing.”
Sir Simon and former minister Dame Andrea Jenkyns are the only Tory MPs to have publicly called for Mr Sunak to go, far short of the 53 MPs needed to submit letters to the backbench 1922 Committee to trigger a confidence vote.
There is unease within the Conservative ranks at Mr Sunak’s failure to close the opinion poll gap with Labour, but there is also recognition that yet another leadership contest this close to an election is unlikely to improve the party’s reputation with the public.
Former Brexit secretary Sir David Davis said: “The party and the country are sick and tired of MPs putting their own leadership ambitions ahead of the UK’s best interests.”
Ex-home secretary Dame Priti Patel said: “At this critical time for our country, with challenges at home and abroad, our party must focus on the people we serve and deliver for the country.
“Engaging in facile and divisive self-indulgence only serves our opponents – it’s time to unite and get on with the job.”