January 25, 2024 - 10:00am

If you come at the king, you best not miss. Fortunately for Simon Clarke MP, he only came at Rishi Sunak (by calling on him to resign in the Telegraph).

But while the embattled Prime Minister is no king, Clarke did in fact miss. His personal rebellion has not inspired a wider public mutiny, though it has been reported that a coterie of former Government advisers is working to oust Sunak before the general election. Instead, outwardly at least, there has been a closing of the ranks — with MPs such as Priti Patel urging colleagues to “unite and get on with the job” instead of “engaging in facile and divisive self indulgence”.

That’s an easy clap-line, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Tories are polling in the low-to-mid-twenties with no sign of recovery. It’s hardly self-indulgent to point that out — it’s a recognition of reality. If there’s no improvement, then Sunak will lead his party to its worst ever defeat. 

Therefore, with a general election due this year, Clarke’s intervention is a timely one. What’s more, it comes just as the launch of Popular Conservatism is announced — a new Tory grouping in which Clarke, alongside Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg, is prominent. Then there’s the Telegraph itself — the house journal of the Conservative Party is at war with the Tory leadership.

And yet the “PopCon” moment appears to have left Sunak in a slightly stronger position than he was at the start of the week. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, when someone sticks their head above the parapet — as Clarke did on Tuesday night — they need their comrades to provide cover. But where were they? If the PopCons can’t coordinate among themselves then what is the point of the group’s existence?

Then there was the YouGov research that the Telegraph published along with the Clarke op-ed. It was meant to convince us that a new Conservative leader would do massively better than Sunak against Keir Starmer. But, such was the far from neutral phrasing of the options, the results were met with mockery.

While Clarke may have jumped the gun, that doesn’t mean that other MPs aren’t waiting for a more opportune moment. Sky’s political editor, Beth Rigby, tweets that according to a “senior MP” the breaking point could be the two by-elections on 15 February: “if we get slaughtered, the herd might well panic.”

Rigby also mentions that an article I wrote this week is being “circulated among MPs in marginal seats”. In it, I argue that while dumping Sunak would be a desperate move, it still beats the certainty of crushing defeat. That said, February would be too soon to press the panic button. Rather, the PM should have until the local elections in May to turn things around. 

This timetable would also give his would-be successors a chance to work out what they would do in his place. Yet this is where the likes of Clarke, Truss and Rees-Mogg face their greatest challenge. Their obsession is with cutting taxation, but there’s overwhelming evidence that this is not the people’s priority — which, for the self-styled Popular Conservatives, is a bit of problem. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.