Will Sunak now shift to the left or right?

In a bid to see-off more humiliating defections, there is likely to be more of the same desperation to get flights to Rwanda off the ground, more speeches littered with US-imported culture war rhetoric, and still more pledges to control spending to pave the way for tax cuts from the Prime Minister.

Right-Wing Watch

“We’re off to the pub,” a spokesperson for the shadowy Tory party donor group Conservative Britain Alliance announced, implying that drowning their sorrows would be more meaningful than plotting against the PM following the local election drubbing.

Deep divisions within the Conservatives, principally over the consequences and effectiveness of their immigration policy, have turned chasmic following the party’s catastrophic loss of 500 seats on May 2. But strangely there is consensus between the factions that Sunak must stay, providing he changes tack, or at the very least makes a better job of representing Tory successes.

The question is, will he tack starboard to placate the anti-immigration right to see off Reform UK and Nigel Farage, or port side to please the moderates who believe a wipeout would be best avoided by moving back towards the centre ground? Much may depend on the size of the storm, which is ominously brewing among right-wing ranks. This belligerent faction of the party is demanding Sunak adopts hard right-wing policies, such as an immigration cap and the scrapping of European human rights law. Such policies would risk harming Britain’s businesses, universities, and our future competitiveness, while leaving people more vulnerable to human rights violations. 

But for Suella Braverman, unless the government adopts a harder line of immigration and rights, the Conservatives will be lucky to have any MPs. In an extraordinary tirade on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, the former home secretary said she regretted voting for Sunak to be leader but said it was too late to get rid of him.  Braverman said Conservative voters were ‘on strike’ as Sunak is not Conservative enough, with his legislation against pedicabs and ban on smoking. Instead, the MP for Fareham wants action on the European Court of Human Rights, more tax cuts, and a cap on legal immigration.

Braverman’s motivations?

It is interesting how Braverman has said she doesn’t want to get rid of Sunak. It makes you wonder what the former home secretary, who was sacked by Sunak in 2023, is up to.  Perhaps she doesn’t want to become leader until after the general election so she cannot get blamed for any defeat? If the Tories’ mimic the local elections’ pitiful results in the general election, Sunak will be gone, Braverman could be elected as leader, and the party can then regroup, rebuild, and return to government as a more united force in five years’ time. Let’s not forget that Braverman has previously been accused of making a bid for the future leadership of the party with a partisan speech at last year’s NatCon conference in London, where she railed against experts and elites.

John Hayes, meanwhile, a Braverman ally, who is considered one of the most right-wing MPs in parliament on immigration, has called for a reshuffle to bring the former home secretary back into the cabinet.

“I do think that the last reshuffle, I don’t think it was terribly well received, because political parties need to offer a balance of views and opinions, all political parties in our system of government are coalitions and it’s right that the often called the right of the party – I describe it as the authentic Tory part of the Conservative Party – is represented at the top table. And so, I believe Suella leaving the top table wasn’t great from that point of view. Being aside from her talents and abilities, which the government could well do with,” the MP told Times Radio.

Echoing calls for a restructure, another senior MP on the right urged Sunak to carry out a reshuffle to rebalance a cabinet which they described as “presently centre-left and in some respects remarkably weak.”

Nadine Dorries, an outspoken critic of Sunak from the right and Boris Johnson’s biggest fan, told Politico’s Westminster Insider podcast that the Prime Minister needed to “take a step back” and get “big hitters” such as former prime ministers Johnson and David Cameron, “up front and centre, firing the bullets at Labour.”

Andrea Jenkyns, another devout Boris Johnson fan on the Tory right, told Sky News: “I would like to see real commonsense conservatism, honouring our manifesto commitments.”

Robert Jenrick piles more pressure on Sunak

Joining the anti-Sunak mutiny, Robert Jenrick has called for the Home Office to be broken up, claiming it is “incapable” of controlling immigration and security Britain’s borders. In a 30-point plan to curb immigration by the right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies (of which more later), Jenrick, alongside former housing minister Neil O’Brien, called for a new Department of Border Security and Immigration Control. The pair said the Home Office had “fallen short” on immigration, claiming that was despite it being an issue consistently at the top of voters’ concerns.

“It would be unforgivable if the government did not use the time before the general election to undo the disastrous post-Brexit liberalisations that betrayed the express wishes of the British public for lower immigration,” said Jenrick.

The MP for Newark went from being Sunak’s trusted ally to dissenting rebel when he stood down as immigration minister in December after it was revealed that the Rwanda deportation legislation did not allow the government to override the international laws that have stopped the government sending asylum seekers to central Africa.

In what could pile more pressure on Sunak to move right and adopt hard-right policies are reports that Dominic Cummings is pushing ahead with plans to set up a new right-wing party. Boris Johnson’s nemesis is reportedly running focus groups across the country for what he’s called a ‘credibility anti-insider’ party to ‘replace the Tories.’ In a Substack email last summer, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign said he wants a new party focused on issues including cutting immigration, reforming the civil service, and closing tax loopholes for ‘the 1 percent.’

Warnings against a ‘drift to the right’

As Cummings’ plans to replace the Conservatives with a new party starts to take shape, and those on the right of the Tories claim the local electoral drubbing was because they were “were not right-wing or extreme enough,” some Tories believe that a move to the centre is what’s needed, to snatch votes from the Lib Dems and Labour in marginal seats.

“…this brand of moderative, inclusive, tolerant conservatism, that gets on and delivered, has come within an ace of beating the Labour party in what they considered to be their back yard – that’s the message from here tonight,” said Andy Street, former West Midland mayor who narrowly lost to Labour in the metro mayoral elections.

Boris Johnson’s former director of communications, Guto Harri, joined Street in warning against a “drift to the right,” saying that the lesson of history is that governments need to govern from the centre.

“We did not lose because we were not right-wing enough. We did not lose because we were not extreme enough,” said Harri.

Justine Greening, a former Conservative cabinet minister and Brexit rebel, who quit as an MP in 2019 saying her party had become the ‘Brexit party,’ argues that it is the party’s swing to the right that is damaging its popularity among voters. Writing for the Guardian, the former MP warned against ‘Reform-lite wreckers like Braverman,’ saying the more Sunak danced to their political tune, the ‘worse the party has done in the polls.’

“Time after time, Sunak has pivoted more sharply towards this group’s uniquely unpopular political agenda, whether in his bizarre conference speech attacking the 30 year failed status quo, raging against the apparently omnipresent “woke” agenda, stoking divisive but headline-grabbing culture wars – or even now threatening to leave the European convention on human rights,” writes Greening.

And there could be some sense in Greening’s argument. Polling published in April showed that people care more about public services and jobs than the orchestrated backlash against minorities. The research concluded that there is a very real risk that using culture wars will backfire electorally. In their relentless playing of the anti-immigration card, the likes of Braverman, Jenrick and Hayes also seem incapable of recognising that more Britons strongly oppose the Rwanda policy than strongly support it, as YouGov polling in June 2023 showed. Even older voters, which the Tories have long relied on in the ballot box, don’t rate immigration as a top priority. According to Age UK’s blueprint for improving the lives of older people ahead of the next general election, keeping the triple lock, having a reliable NHS, and reforming social care, are the three top things older people want from the next government.

Voters exasperated by infighting

Braverman, Jenrick and Hayes’ seeming delight in stoking the infighting might give the right-wing press some juicy headlines, but it risks exasperating voters even more. The British public are “putting their fingers in their ears” about the Conservatives because they are engaged in too much infighting, said Robert Buckland, Conservative MP and former justice secretary from the centrist One Nation wing of the party.

“The more that we talk about factions and ideology and the less we focus on business, on growth, on jobs, on housing, all those issues that actually people are talking about … then I think we’ve become an irrelevant rump,” he told GB News

Amid the growing conflict, what exactly Sunak will do to escape a political death march remains unclear. Sticking with his ‘Sunak the sensible’ persona, which was a leading pitch in his leadership bid following the chaos of his two predecessors, seems likely. In the aftermath of the local election trouncing, the PM signalled he would not switch things about.

“I am determined more than ever to show the public that what we’re doing is making a difference,” he told broadcasters, in what looked like a bid to maintain his ‘sensible’ role. 

But rather than tacking left, it seems most likely that Sunak, who is an inherent right-winger on Brexit and the economy, will prioritise placating the rebellious right. Too little, too late though for the right-wing MP Natalie Elphicke, who, peeved by broken promises of Rishi Sunak’s tired and chaotic government,” moved  from the Tories to Labour this week, in what was one of the strangest defections ever. With her concerning track record, including having consistently voted against laws to promote equality and human rights, the hard-right MP’s admission to the party enraged many Labour MPs. 

In a bid to see-off more humiliating defections, there is likely to be more of the same desperation to get flights to Rwanda off the ground, more speeches littered with US-imported culture war rhetoric, and still more pledges to control spending to pave the way for tax cuts from the Prime Minister.

The savage reality is that, as the former Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan once observed, there comes a time in the lives of governments when the people stop listening to them. It seems they are no longer listening to the Conservatives and there are some signs that they have started listening to Labour.  

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press leap on think-tank report promoting anti-migrant propaganda

As many in the Conservative Party seek their pound of flesh following last week’s local elections’ drubbing, as we have already noted, Robert Jenrick heaped more pressure on Rishi Sunak with a 30-point plan to curb migration. The co-authored Centre for Policy Studies’ report resulted in antagonism towards immigrants once again finding its way to the pages of the right-wing media, which has long promoted anti-immigrant narratives, presenting stories involving those fleeing persecution as a ‘crisis’ and an ‘uncomfortable truth,’ designed to create hostility, fear, and mistrust.

‘Migrant housing crisis: Migrants coming to UK to blame for almost 90 percent of Britain’s housing problems, shock report warns,’ splashed the Sun.

Using the depressingly familiar anti-asylum rhetoric, which dehumanises migrants while ignoring the factors that have pushed them from their homes, the article speaks of an ‘influx’ that is ‘piling pressure on public services.’

Citing deliberately provocative quotes from the MPs, the same fearmongering language continues throughout the Sun’s report, such as equating net migration ‘ballooning’ past 3.7 million since 2010, to the “populations of Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Stoke, Bristol and Cardiff put together, or more than the population of Wales.”

The Express went a step further, devoting its front page to the report. ‘Myth migrants boost economy must be busted’ barked the headline. “Senior Tories are demanding Rishi Sunak dumps “liberal” immigration rules,” the lead story continues.

Concurrent with the publishing of the Taking Back Control report, Jenrick penned a piece in the Telegraph. Entitled ‘Betrayed voters deserve action now on the mass migration scandal,’ the article promotes the report, detailing ‘the failures of our legal migration system and setting out more than 30 policies to fix it.’

The Times’ focused its coverage on the former ministers’ calls for the Home Office to be broken up. The article cites the MPs’ claims that the “Home Office should be split up because it is “incapable” of controlling immigration and securing Britain’s borders.”

This is the same newspaper which jumped on Robert Jenrick’s trip to Texas in February to view the border wall and meet senior Republicans. The Texas trip left the MP for Newark arguing that Britain can ‘learn from Trump’ on immigration. Says it all!

It is depressing but possible that the sensationalising, scaremongering headlines derived from the report, will help sell copies to the aging and predominantly right-wing readership who still buy these publications. Being ideologically aligned to the political messaging of the think-tank, these newspapers offer little critical analysis of the report. But this is hardly surprising given the direct connections between the think-tank, the Conservative Party, and the right-wing press. Robert Colvile, director of the CPS, is also a columnist for the Sunday Times, and former head of comment at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Colvile also co-authored the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, which contained a range of policies advocated by the CPS. He is also an advisor to the JBC Group, the British construction giant which the Tories took more than £1m from, along with its directors, despite the UN linking the firm to the destruction of Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

None of these relationships figured in the coverage given to the report in the right-wing press. Now there is a surprise! As right-wing politicians continue their migrant-baiting rants, the reality is that presenting immigration as a threat, failed to save the Tories in the local elections, and is unlikely to work in the general election either. In the real world, people’s views on immigration are tempered by the care being given to their mother in her care home by a young Vietnamese woman, by the fact that when they go for a hospital appointment, they are treated by a Somalian nurse, or even in their local coffee shop, they are served by a Syrian student. Of course, people worry about pressures on housing, on schools and hospitals but they also know there are other solutions to these issues than the crude rhetoric of right-wing politicians and the media that supports them. 

Smear of the Week – Right fly false claims Sadiq Khan refused to shake Susan Hall’s hand

It seems the right have learned absolutely nothing from the spectacular backfiring of the Conservative’s controversial smear campaign against Sadiq Khan in the mayoral elections. Despite aggressive tactics, including circulating a video that presented London as a crime-riddled hellhole, the Labour politician comfortably saw off his Tory challenger Susan Hall. No sooner had the results been announced, Khan was once again the victim of a hostile and utterly fake online conspiracy.

Leading the charge were the usual commentators who like to prove their ‘relevance’ by posting provocative content, regardless of its accuracy.

GB News pundit Sophie Corcoran was at the forefront of the fake claim, posting an image that suggested the London mayor refused to shake hands with the Tory party candidate alongside the text:

“Imagine if this was the other way round… The left would have a meltdown and say she was being a racist nazi.”

Fellow GB News’ host Darren Grimes couldn’t resist making a similar aggressive gripe, tweeting: “Truly awful man. Looking down on her from day one. This is what the Left really think of us.”

Sacked GB News host Dan Wootton was at it too, claiming Hall was ‘dignified unlike Khan who refused to shake her hand.’

A video of the same event clearly shows that Khan did not refuse to shake hands with his opponent and did so immediately after the moment that was captured in the viral images.

Onlookers saw through the right’s latest smear campaign against the London mayor. Referring to Grimes and Corcoran’s tweets, blogger Snigdha wrote:

“A cynical lie intended to stoke Islamophobia and racism.”

You would think that the right would have learned lessons in how NOT to run campaigns, following Zac Goldsmith’s shameless exploitation of anti-Muslim prejudices as Conservative candidate for the London mayor post in 2016. Rather than attempting to cross partisan divides and capitalise on his reputation as a more liberal-minded, eco-conscious Tory, Goldsmith waged a campaign soaked in racism in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. The dog-whistle battle backfired, as Susan Hall’s did last week, as Khan finished comfortably ahead of his Conservative rival. Double karma!

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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