Desperately seeking martyrdom
With the Tories facing an electoral drubbing and having no coherent strategy, Rishi Sunak is reduced to day-to-day politicking, writes Eddie Ford
British politics last week were certainly eventful. There was the shocking news (that we had all been expecting) about the sacking of Suella Braverman, the home secretary. It is hard to disagree with the mainstream commentary that this was a lot more to do with what happens after the next general election than the general election itself. In other words, Braverman is attempting to become the leader of the Tory right and eventually the party itself - though how successfully is another question - when Rishi Sunak falls on his sword next year following the election, where the Tories are “heading for crucifixion” (to use the words of polling guru Sir John Curtice).
For some time now, Braverman has been specialising in the vilest version of vile Tory policy. Obviously, she is trying to appeal to the most bigoted, vengeful and narrow-minded section of the Tory rank and file. Now, that is a risky calculation - who knows what the situation will be after the next general election? But she seems to be banking on securing enough support amongst MPs to allow her to appeal to that constituency. If you want an insight into Braverman’s thinking, look at the last Tory leader to have done that - which was Liz Truss, of course, who comfortably beat Sunak in terms of the votes of party members. Braverman is clearly calculating that history will repeat itself.
We all know the sort of things Braverman has been saying. The pro-Palestinian marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza are “hate marches”, not to mention anti-Semitic, and therefore should be banned. Those living on the streets of Britain in tents or cardboard boxes are indulging in a “lifestyle choice”! When it comes to Sunak’s five pledges - crucially those about people trying to enter Britain in small boats - she wants to deal with it not simply by locking up people on hellish barges and effectively concentration camps (whether in Rwanda or elsewhere): she actually wants Britain to abandon its commitment to the European Court of Human Rights, which would put the UK in the same company as Belarus and Valdimir Putin’s Russia - an acutely uncomfortable position for many Tories, especially senior ones.
Perhaps what really forced the prime minister to do something about his increasingly rogue home secretary were her public attacks on the Met police for being “biased” towards pro-Palestinian demonstrators - indeed, for actually favouring the left as opposed to the right! Well, you reap what you sow. At the last national pro-Palestinian demonstration on November 11, which was attended by up to 800,000 people, a rightwing baying mob led by Tommy Robinson fought the police using the language of Suella Braverman. They chanted “You’re not English any more” at the Met officers, having gathered to “defend” the Cenotaph - even though the main rally route avoided the Whitehall area altogether, began at a different time and ended up on the opposite side of the Thames. But that did not prevent Braverman and the rightwing press spouting crazy nonsense about the demonstration, despite the fact that it was overwhelmingly peaceful. In fact, if you look at the number of arrests on the day, it was mainly those on the right - not because the Met is “biased” towards the left (you must be joking!), but because the Robinson crowd were boozed up and clashed violently with the police … after taking their cue from the home secretary’s remarks.
Given her history, there were many reasons to sack Suella Braverman - some reports say it was actually her remarks about cracking down on the homeless on the basis that “we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents”. But, whatever the exact cause, she was obviously daring Rishi Sunak to get rid of her - wanting to be sacked, so she becomes a rightwing martyr and another victim of the woke elite that rules Britain.
After her dismissal, we had the sideways move - neither promotion nor demotion - of James Cleverly, going from foreign secretary to home secretary. Naturally, his first formal statement in his new role was all about small boats and ‘getting the job done’ - though how the government gets the job done remains a mystery. It is worth noting that he did not talk about Britain leaving the ECHR, but we do have a lot of rhetoric from the prime minister about legislation that will overrule the supreme court and basically announce in law that Rwanda is a ‘safe place’ to be deported to.
According to lawyers, this is the equivalent of parliament announcing that black is white and the world is flat. Ultimately, parliament is allowed to do things like that, but nonetheless it defies all the evidence that we have in front of our eyes - not only in terms of Rwanda’s somewhat grisly past, but its extremely unstable present. It also ignores what happened when Israel also sent some 4,000 of its own Eritrean and Sudanese refugees to Rwanda between 2013 and 2018. They were rapidly deported to neighbouring countries - getting charged a fee for the privilege - and eventually ended up in Europe before the secretive arrangement was abandoned.1
Following the axing of Braverman, there was also the genuinely surprising return of David ‘Dodgy’ Cameron as the new foreign secretary. Yes, him of the Greensill Capital scandal and the Panama Papers - just two years after a parliamentary inquiry found he had shown a “significant lack of judgment” over a lobbying campaign for a bank in which he held a personal economic interest. A scandal which will not go away.
The upright and upstanding Rishi Sunak recommended Dodgy Dave for a life peerage - the first former prime minister to serve in a ministerial post since Alec Douglas-Home in 1970 and also the first former prime minister to be created a peer since Margaret Thatcher. He is now Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton - very impressive, Dave. Clearly, this was not part of some Sunak masterplan. What we know of Cameron before he became prime minister was all about greenwashing the Tory Party. There were pictures of him in the Arctic with huskies and a sledge - a transparently cynical and cringeworthy PR exercise that fooled no-one. The other thing everybody knows about him is, of course, the 2008 financial crash - blaming it all on Gordon Brown and then going for the age of austerity, which saw the Tories ditching “all the green crap”.
What else to say about Dodgy Dave? Well, as it happens, only last month we had Sunak’s speech at the Tory Party conference. As most readers will remember, he presented himself as Mr Change, the guy bravely challenging the status quo, essentially denouncing all the prime ministers that came before him (except for Margaret Thatcher, of course), including a certain … David Cameron.
The message coming from Rishi Sunak and the Tory government as a whole is totally inconsistent, which can only lead you to conclude that we have a government that is simply looking at tomorrow’s headlines and incapable of thinking strategically - or even a month ahead. All it cares about is digging itself out of the latest hole it has made, and anything will do - even if it contradicts what it said in the previous week. Who cares? But the idea that the reappearance of David Cameron is a brilliant move that will change the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes is for the birds - which you would think they must know, but clearly do not. None of it makes sense, because what does Cameron conjure up for your average Tory voter or ex-Tory voter? Not “Green crap”, but rather ‘Remainer shit’. Not only did he go for an EU referendum in order to defeat the threat posed by Nigel Farage and Ukip, but he lost it as well. Meaning that Cameron is regarded as a joke by almost everybody, whatever their view on Brexit.
But that is what his name will instantly conjure up for a potential Tory voter. No wonder that the rightwing Tory backbenchers are totally fed up with Sunak. Voicing their frustration, Dame Andrea Jenkyns submitted a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to party grandees and added: “It is time for Rishi Sunak to go and replace him with a ‘real’ Conservative party leader.”
Then we had the Autumn Statement, with chancellor Jeremy Hunt also guilty of some mixed messaging. After saying that the battle against inflation was his priority, not the immediate tax cuts demanded by the right, he has suddenly found himself billions in wriggle room because the UK is apparently on track to borrow less than expected - the UK economy had “definitely turned a corner”, he declared, following the release of data showing that inflation had dropped to 4.6% in October.
What is he going to spend it all on? Cuts in corporation tax, which will be sold to the electorate on the grounds that it will stimulate industry and commerce, therefore generating prosperity. Then we have an appeal to the voter on inheritance tax, with a promise to abolish it altogether in the next Tory manifesto.
The same can be said, but in an even more petty, regressive and selfish way, about the idea being floated by Hunt and other ministers of cutting benefits to the so-called ‘undeserving poor’ that are supposedly playing the system. For example, in order to get people up and moving - become industrious - we have the entirely unpleasant suggestion of getting rid of free prescriptions for those who “refuse to engage” with the job centre, or for people with mobility and mental health problems who do not do “their duty” by working from home if asked.2 The current prescription charge is £9.65 per item. If it is a one-off charge, that is affordable for most people, but imagine someone who has a chronic problem - it could quickly become ruinously expensive. The very fact that a civil servant or political advisor could even suggest such a vindictive measure, let alone that Jeremy Hunt could run with it, shows something about his lack of imagination and humanity. It is not difficult to imagine the Daily Mirror or The Guardian, even The Sun, getting hold of someone with a severe mental health problem that keeps them from getting a job and is denied a prescription - thus potentially doing harm to themselves or others. What sort of headline would that make in the run-up to a general election?
Explaining why Rishi Sunak is panicking at the moment, doing something so obviously stupid like bringing Cameron back, all the opinion polls have been painting the same picture - Labour ahead by 20 points and more. Nothing that Sunak has done or said so far, whether trying to reinvent himself as Mr Change or as the “motorist’s friend”, has dented Labour’s lead. It seems that for the Tories the only way is down - to a big defeat in 2024.
Blundering Sir Keir
True, Sir Keir and his team could still blow it. But so far he has managed to keep his eye on the prize he always wanted: a Labour government with him in No10. That has meant keeping Jeremy Corbyn out, purging the left, showing financial responsibility and, crucially, loyalty - slavishly echoing the Biden administration over Israel’s bloody Gaza war.
Defying 56 rebel MPs, even losing eight frontbenchers, actually strengthens his claim to represent a safe pair of hands. He did not budge, he did not bend. True, some on the left think Starmer blundered. But imagine for one moment that he had shied away from the US line because of pressure from his MPs and councillors. All hell in the form of the Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail would come down upon him … and perhaps Anthony Blinken would be darkly talking about ‘pushback’ and the need for another, responsible, Labour leader.
It was never going to happen. Sir Keir at least, is not so stupid.