Senior Tories have rallied round Rishi Sunak and warned against “foolish” infighting after former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke called for a change in leader.

Sir Simon warned that the Conservatives will be “massacred” at the general election unless the Prime Minister is replaced.

But Home Secretary James Cleverly and a string of current and former ministers slapped him down.

Mr Cleverly told reporters: “I know Simon very well, I like him and respect him. I could not disagree with him more on this particular issue.”

He added: “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, Labour leader Sir Keir seized on the latest wave of unrest within the Tory ranks.

“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 the Labour leader’s attacks, and instead sought to focus on Sir Keir’s own record, saying “he is not a leader, he is a human weathervane”.

UK Parliament portraits
Sir Simon Clarke has called for a change in leadership in the Conservative Party (UK Parliament/PA)

The latest round of the Tory civil war was sparked by a Telegraph newspaper column in which former levelling up secretary Sir Simon claimed “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.

He added: “I know many MPs are afraid another change of leader would look ridiculous.

“But what could be more ridiculous than meekly sleepwalking towards an avoidable annihilation because we were not willing to listen to what the public are telling us so clearly?”

The Conservative Democratic Organisation, led by allies of former prime minister Boris Johnson, claimed grassroots Tories are effectively “on strike” because of disillusionment with Mr Sunak.

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 did not enjoy wider support among the party.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary said: “This is one MP.”

She added: “We recognise that he’s in a different place to some other MPs that have come out today. He’s entitled to his view but that won’t distract us from getting on with what matters to people.”

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.”

Postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake acknowledged there is a sense of “panic” in some sections of the party, but said Sir Simon’s view is not widely held.

He told Times Radio: “Of course, some people panic at a difficult time. This is not the overwhelming view of the party.”

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 required 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.

David Davis
Sir David Davis warned his Tory colleagues to be cautious (UK Parliament/Maria Unger/PA)

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.”

Former 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.”

Sir Simon was a key ally of former prime minister Liz Truss, but the PA news agency understands she does not back his intervention.

He was among 11 Conservative MPs who voted against the Prime Minister’s Rwanda Bill at its third reading earlier this month, despite Mr Sunak seeing off a wider Tory rebellion.