24 January 2024

Simon Clarke should be careful what he wishes for


Readers of a certain vintage will remember Blake’s 7. Callaghan Britain’s answer to Star Wars, it followed the attempts of freedom fighter Roj Blake and the crew of the ‘Liberator’ to resist the Terran Federation. Despite its titular hero quitting halfway through, spaceships made from hairdryers, and scenery that wobbled when it wasn’t being chewed by the cast, it ran for four series. 

Particularly memorable is the ending of the final episode. Avon – Blake’s less trustworthy but camper replacement – tracks his former ally down to a distant planet. Convinced Blake has betrayed him, he shoots him dead. Shots ring out from Federation troops; all his fellow rebels are left for dead. Avon is the last man standing, surrounded. He smiles. The screen turns black.  

I was reminded of his fate upon seeing Simon Clarke’s Telegraph article this morning. Having once been Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Rishi Sunak, Clarke is now calling on Conservative MPs to oust his former boss as Prime Minister. Whilst Sunak has admirable qualities, ‘he does not get what Britain needs’, Clarke says. If MPs don’t act ‘extinction is a very real possibility’ at the coming general election. 

Like Avon, Clarke was once Sunak’s Number two. Like Avon, he now aims to shoot the Prime Minister right in the front. Clarke doesn’t make for a wholly surprising rebel. Since his time at the Treasury, Clarke served as the George Lazenby of Levelling-Up Secretaries under Liz Truss and has been using his subsequent time on the backbenches to fight the good fight for free markets, housebuilding, and energy security. 

That Clarke found himself on the backbenches was due to his closeness to Truss. His account of both what she aimed to do and why it all went wrong is one of the most valuable yet published. Whilst she did not join him in voting down the Government’s Rwanda Bill last week, they are both down to launch a new movement entitled Popular Conservatism. 

One might say taking lessons from Liz Truss on how to make conservatism popular is a bit like asking Paula Vennells for advice on how to treat your employees. Yet whilst one might find the ex-PM’s attempts to remain politically relevant increasingly laughable, one cannot say there isn’t some truth in Clarke’s critiques of both the Prime Minister’s approach and his government’s policies. 

According to Clarke, ‘beyond believing we should live within our means, Rishi’s analysis of the challenges we face and change we need is far too unclear’. Inflation might be falling. But net migration has exploded. Where is a radical supply-side programme to jolt our economy out of its low-growth rut? What has happened to tax, welfare, or planning reform? What is the Tory offer?

The almost 14m people who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 did not vote for scrapping A-Levels and banning teenagers from buying cigarettes. Post-Brexit, we needed a radical government, willing to scrap this country’s flailing economic model and deliver for those parts of the country that both Labour and the Tories had long neglected. This government has failed them, and defeat looms. 

I like Clarke. Sunak was wrong to remove him from the Cabinet, or not to bring him back at the earliest opportunity. He grasps intuitively what so many Conservative MPs do not, on everything from planning reform to the necessity of growth. But to point out that voters did not elect a Rishi Sunak government is not to suggest they ever wanted one headed by Liz Truss either. 

It has taken Sunak over a year to reach the depths of polling that Truss managed in a couple of months. One can debate whether removing Boris Johnson was a mistake. But it is much harder to suggest that replacing him with Truss was anything but a disaster. That no other MPs have yet followed Clarke over the top shows how his credibility has been dented through association with her. 

Moreover, it shows that they lack Clarke’s confidence that trying to force Sunak out could do anything other than release further horrors. Cicero said of the assassins of Julius Caesar that they had the courage of men but the foresight of children. Whilst I don’t doubt Clarke’s intelligence, I would say that he is being similarly naïve about what a leadership challenge would entail. 

Even if his opponents could muster enough letters for Sir Graham Brady, the Prime Minister would likely survive a no confidence vote against him. But like Theresa May or Boris Johnson, he might stagger on only until by-election or local election defeats or the next Cabinet crisis causes more MPs to panic. But a leadership election would not mean a coronation for the right, but further civil war. 

Which of Penny Mordaunt, Suella Braverman, or Kemi Badenoch is going to stand aside? Will the party unite around a single candidate? Will the backbench right go to war with each other? Will members get a vote? Will they again vote for a candidate who lacks the support of most MPs? Will they call a general election? Will the Conservative Party survive long enough for them to do so? 

Clarke should be careful what he wishes for. He can point to a YouGov poll suggesting Keir Starmer would be beaten by a new Tory leader who could stop the boats, reduce NHS waiting times, and cut taxes. Yet the Prime Minister has tried to do all three and been found wanting. Why does he think any other leader, short on time, support, and sanity, would have any more of a chance? 

The reason is obvious: desperation. With poll after poll suggesting they are heading for an epochal defeat, it is no surprise that anti-Sunak Tory MPs want to smash the glass marked ‘leadership election’. But the voters are sick of the Conservatives. If Clarke can’t stomach Sunak, his choice is either to hunt for a safer seat or imitate Chris Skidmore in racing to the front of the Job Centre queue. 

Had Clarke not put his head over the parapet – hard for him not to do, as Parliament’s second tallest MP – it would have been easier for the right of the party to blame Sunak after a defeat. After this abortive putsch, they’ve been left looking as silly as they did after the Truss implosion. Sunak may be uninspiring. But boredom is better than hoping for any better from our fourth PM in two years. 

Yet blood will have blood. Clarke may have cut a lonely figure today, but the Rubicon has been crossed. If the Conservatives continue to fall in the polls, others will join him as authors of their own misfortune. Trying to apply reason to the situation is just howling into the void. Will the last Tory MP to commit hara-kiri please turn out the lights?  

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.