At first sight, former Trussite cabinet minister Simon Clarke’s call for Rishi Sunak to be replaced is utter madness. Not that Sunak is a great political asset to the Conservatives. Yes, he made a fabulous first impression on the British public as “Dishy Rishi”, the chancellor who delivered the furlough scheme and demonstrated that even Boris Johnson’s government had at least one competent administrator. But that now feels rather a long time ago. Yet to remove Sunak and impose a fourth Tory prime minister since the last election would be an obviously disastrous political move.
Most Conservative MPs know this. And even Clarke knows that most think as much. I am sure he is sincere in believing that it is worth gambling on a new leader and that almost anyone other than Sunak would do better. But the former chief secretary to the Treasury will also know that he is in a small minority in the Tory parliamentary party, just as he was in a small minority (of 11) in opposing the Rwanda Bill at its third reading, in abstaining at its second reading (37) and in opposing the Windsor Framework last year (22). He is not going to get the 53 signatures needed to trigger a confidence vote in Sunak and were he to do so, he would not get the 175 votes needed to force him out.
As a move to deliver the stated objective – removing the Prime Minister before the general election – this looks like an entirely futile gesture that is only going to make the Conservatives’ task even harder. That is why most Tory MPs are currently furious with Clarke.
There is, of course, another interpretation. Clarke wants an immediate change of PM but he doesn’t expect it. What this is really about is the argument that will begin in earnest the day after the next general election.
Let us fast forward to, say, 15 November and a heavy Conservative defeat. The first instinct of any party in these circumstances is to attribute blame. Where to start? Boris Johnson and partygate? No, it cannot be that – at least not in the eyes of Johnson loyalists such as Clarke. What about Liz Truss and the mini-Budget? Certainly not, says Sir Simon, the Truss enthusiast. He might, just as he did in his Telegraph article, graciously acknowledge that Sunak is “far from solely responsible for our present predicament” (a phrase that is doing an awful lot of work) but, yes, it was really all Sunak’s fault. He was unclear, beholden to convention, soft on immigration, too accepting of international law, and lacking in the vision to deliver tax, welfare, planning and public services reform. Damn it, man. He is just not Conservative enough.
Pretty much all of this was stated in Clarke’s Telegraph column, combined with some dubious polling suggesting that the country is crying out for proper Conservatism and an obligatory reference to the threat that Nigel Farage poses to the Tory party.
Clarke cannot seriously believe he is going to win the argument that now is the time for another change of leader. But, at the very least, he is laying down a marker for the argument to come about who takes responsibility for an election defeat and how the Conservative Party changes as a consequence. At that point, he might be very confident that his view may well prevail. Scapegoating Sunak is what this is really all about.
[See also: Who would dominate the Tory party in opposition?]