Senior Tories have warned against another round of damaging infighting after former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke called for Rishi Sunak to be replaced as leader to avoid a Conservative “massacre” at the general election.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said it would be “foolish” to have further dissent within the party, arguing that it would leave the door open to Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer.

Former defence secretary Ben Wallace dismissed Sir Simon’s call to oust Mr Sunak, saying “division and another PM would lead to the certain loss of power”.

Mr Cleverly and Mr Wallace were among a series of current and former ministers who publicly rejected Sir Simon’s challenge to the Prime Minister’s authority as Tories rallied round Mr Sunak.

Writing in the Telegraph, former levelling up secretary Sir Simon insisted “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.

Other senior party figures immediately hit back, urging colleagues to “unite and get on with the job”.

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.”

Mr 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.

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.

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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.

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

The group’s chairman and 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.”

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The Northern Echo: Labour’s Pat McFadden said the Conservatives have formed a “circular firing squad”, adding: “There are many good reasons for getting rid of this clapped-out Conservative Government, and liberating the British people from endless bouts of Tory infighting is certainly one of them.”

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper branded the Tory infighting “utterly ludicrous” and said voters are “sick and tired of this never-ending Conservative Party soap opera”.