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Why Sunak has not disavowed Braverman's inflammatory remarks on migrants

Amid lagging poll numbers, the British prime minister knows that only dramatic action can save him. That means appealing to the electorate's most bigoted instincts
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks in London on 7 March 2023 (AFP)
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks in London on 7 March 2023 during a press conference announcing a policy to detain and deport migrants arriving in small boats (AFP)

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the British Conservative Party was convulsed by a bitter argument about immigration and race.

On one side stood the Tory prime minister, Edward Heath. He nervously favoured controlled immigration and was convinced that Britain must do the right thing and welcome 27,000 Ugandan Asians into Britain after their expulsion by the murderous dictator, Idi Amin.

But he faced a well-organised back bench revolt, led by perhaps the most brilliant Conservative politician of his generation - Enoch Powell, who enjoyed strong support among right-wing Conservative MPs, the racist Monday Club and the far-right National Front.

There are many similarities between Heath's immigration crisis in 1972 and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's small boat problem today

There are many similarities between Heath’s immigration crisis in 1972 and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s small boat problem today.

Heath was so rattled by the revolt that he ordered the foreign office to comb Britain’s remaining imperial possessions, from the Falklands and Bermuda to the Virgin Islands, for a “suitable island with enough space to serve as a place of settlement for UK passport holders long enough to make it possible to admit them to Britain over a period of time under a voucher system” - a strong echo of the current plan to house migrants in Rwanda.

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Just like today, immigration was then a toxic issue, and Tory strategists feared it could lose them the looming general election.

But there was one crucial difference: Heath kept his head. Showing immense political bravery, he faced down the National Front and the Monday Club. He extended the arm of welcome to Ugandan Asians, a community that has prospered mightily ever since. And he drove Powell out of the Tory Party. 

Dangerous language

Now let’s examine Sunak’s conduct in 2023 in comparison with Heath in 1972. Sunak has promised to end the small boats that cross the Channel to reach the UK once and for all, by introducing the illegal immigration bill.

Over the last 48 hours, Sunak’s home secretary, Suella Braverman, has made a series of remarks that even Powell might consider beyond the pale. 

She told parliament that 100 million refugees would be coming to the UK: “Let’s be clear: They are coming here.” Then, she upped the stakes by stating in the Daily Mail that there are “likely billions more eager to come here if possible”.

Braverman has used this kind of dangerous and inflammatory language before, not least when she warned of an “invasion” of migrants on the southern coast of Britain. The job of the home secretary is to keep the peace, not to make remarks that risk stirring up violence.

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman is pictured in London on 7 March 2023 (AFP)
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman is pictured in London on 7 March 2023 (AFP)

Braverman must know what she is doing. As the Guardian has revealed, she’s been warned by government lawyers that inflammatory immigration rhetoric risked inspiring a far-right terror attack.

Nor is that all. On Tuesday, the home secretary made remarks that came close to an attack on the rule of law itself when she blamed “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party” for blocking Conservative attempts to stop small boat crossings. Bizarrely, Downing Street later claimed that the home secretary had not seen the email before it was issued in her own name.

It looks very much as if the home secretary has - not for the first time - broken the ministerial code, which contains a clause insisting that ministers “uphold the impartiality of the civil service”.

In short, the home secretary has declared war on the institutions of the British state, including the civil service and the rule of law. Such hotheaded remarks add to the risk of street violence at a time when, as events at Knowsley and elsewhere show, the far right is looking to mobilise.

Electoral strategy

We know how Heath dealt with his subordinates who flirted with the far right 50 years ago. First (in 1968 in the wake of Powell's horrific “rivers of blood” remarks), he kicked Powell out of the shadow cabinet, and then froze him out of the party.

Sunak, by contrast, has not challenged Braverman. There’s been no criticism of her intemperate language from 10 Downing Street. In fact the prime minister echoed her statements in a press conference on Wednesday above the slogan "Stop the boats".

This suggests that inflammatory language about migrants, along with cowardly attacks on civil servants and lawyers, are part of a Tory electoral strategy.

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Sunak will be agonisingly aware that since becoming prime minister last autumn, he has made little difference to Tory poll numbers, which currently show that he’s headed for a heavy defeat in the next general election, which must be held by January 2025 at the latest.

To be fair, that’s not completely his fault. His predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have left behind a dreadful mess.

Sunak knows that only dramatic action can save him. That means appealing to the ugliest and most bigoted instincts of the British electorate. He has likely calculated that Braverman’s vile language can save his skin. 

Heath faced exactly the same temptation 50 years ago, with anxiety about immigration at a boiling point and racists like the National Front and rabble-rousers like Powell on the march.

He would have known that he had a better chance of winning the looming election by keeping Powell in the Tory tent. But he did the right thing, rather than the electorally expedient thing. In the end, he lost the 1974 general election, but he maintained the reputation of the Conservatives as the party of the respectable right. Sunak has made the opposite decision. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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