UK PM Rishi Sunak’s shift to the far right

In a bid to convince potential voters, Conservatives take a tough line on immigration and security policies, as well as backtracking on the fight against climate change

Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to a Hertfordshire home on Monday.HOLLIE ADAMS (REUTERS)
Rafa de Miguel

On September 28, almost 40 people gathered in the offices of a public relations firm in London’s City for the presentation of The Case For The Centre Right, a collection of 11 essays or laments written by former British Conservative MPs who were center stage until the wave of far-right Brexit-style populists threw them aside. Among the authors are David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd and Dominic Grieve — all of them ministers in an era prior to the premiership of Boris Johnson, whose politics have been continued and even accentuated by his successors.

Political desperation leads to extremes. Rishi Sunak, the UK’s current prime minister, is facing devastating ratings in the polls for his Conservative Party, which has been in power for almost 13 years. His response has been to take decisions and spout rhetoric similar to that of the far-right parties in Europe, with an inflexible stance on irregular immigration and crime, while backtracking and denial framing his commitment to the fight against climate change. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail, said the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow. Coming to the fore as a man of moderation and pragmatism, considered ideal to fix the gaffes made by his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak has turned out to be more reactionary still.

Nothing if not tenacious, the current prime minister is driven by the threat of an electoral defeat either at the end of 2024, when the British are scheduled to go to the polls; or sooner, if the rumor of an early election in May materializes.

As EL PAÍS was told by Gary Younge, professor of sociology at Manchester University and winner of this year’s prestigious Orwell Prize for Journalism: “It all stems from the desperate situation in which the Conservative Party finds itself combined with its tendency to turn politics into a cultural war. You only have to look at the polls [the average gives a 20 percentage point lead to the Labour opposition] or at all the scandals that have emerged in recent years to understand that desperation. The backtracking on the fight against climate change, this idea of presenting environmental goals as economic obstacles to British families struggling to make ends meet, is nothing more than the result of having clung for so long to Johnson’s obscene mandate.”

Farewell to the consensus on global warming

According to a handful of Conservative MPs, the desperate bid for votes has ended up undermining the only issue that had the consensus of both major parties: the fight against global warming. “It is very important that we avoid using the climate issue, and energy issues in general, as weapons in the culture wars,” Amber Rudd, minister for Energy and Climate Change during David Cameron’s Conservative government (2010-2016), tells EL PAÍS. “We agreed on the Climate Change Act of 2008 and now it is in danger of becoming the subject of an election debate, as has already happened in the United States.”

None of the decisions or strategies launched by Downing Street in recent weeks have had a direct or practical effect on the lives of British people, but they herald the Conservatives’ decision to cling to a populist and extreme right-wing stance in an attempt to retain power.

Sunak has supported the war unleashed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman on irregular immigration and the arrival of boats on the coasts of southern England. If months ago Braverman spoke of an “invasion,” this week she went so far as to define the increase in arrivals as a threat to national security. In a speech before the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute forum in Washington, she said that police chiefs had warned her of an increase in criminality linked to the arrival of small boats, especially in relation to drugs and prostitution.

The concern that has arisen both among Conservative and Labour voters over the increase in irregular immigration is fueled by the same xenophobia that drove Brexit. The slogan “Stop the Boats,” which accompanies Sunak in each of his interventions on the issue, will feature at the annual Conservative Party Conference that runs from October 1-4 in Manchester. It will be the platform from which the Tories will fight for their survival, and will consolidate the isolation of the few moderates remaining in a party increasingly leaning to the right.

When asked by EL PAÍS to explain the resurgence of populism in his party, Michael Heseltine, 90, one of the most brilliant Conservative politicians of the Thatcher era, said: “Racism and immigration, not only here, but all over the world. Tribalism, racism, immigration... All fed by that deep human instinct to protect what you have.”

Heseltine believes Sunak has brought sanity to the party in the wake of the Johnson scandals and Liz Truss’ catastrophic economic policies. But he is not among those applauding the PM’s latest decisions, such as Sunak’s decision to backtrack on several of the government’s environmental commitments, including the goal of eliminating the sale of gasoline or diesel vehicles by 2030. That applause is coming from populists like Donald Trump. “I always knew Sunak was smart, that he wasn’t going to destroy and bankrupt his nation for fake climate alarmists that don’t have a clue,” Trump wrote on X.

Firstly, there is the questionable claim that this U-turn will be leaving the average member of the public better off. Then there is the embarrassing suggestion that the decision was taken to drive a new culture war by inventing measures no one had proposed in order to then be seen to eliminate them. These include having to have seven recycling bins in each house, a ban on eating meat, and a restriction on the number of passengers in each car. “There is nowhere left for them to turn, because the Labour opposition has clawed away a large part of the centrist vote,” says Younge. “Their trump card is to turn up the volume of far-right rhetoric, even though in practice they have been raising taxes for some years now, something that is in theory the domain of left-wing governments.”

The ultra-right in disguise

Sunak’s climate denial, immigration rhetoric and public safety strategy suggest that he wants to appeal to a few million voters far to the right who have, for years, been in the thrall of the anti-EU nationalism of Nigel Farage’s UKIP party. This week’s decision by Sunak and Braverman to back police officers who surrendered their weapons to protest the trial of a colleague accused of killing an unarmed Black man has triggered concern among jurists and human rights organizations. But it is designed to convince those on the far-right who have no alternative political formations to fall back on, as in other countries in Europe.

“One important difference with other places, such as Spain, is that in the UK the electoral system makes it very difficult for the extreme right to win seats in a general election, even if they were able to get almost four million votes,” explains Martin Shaw, professor of international relations and politics at Sussex University. “That’s why the influence of Farage and UKIP on the Conservative Party is always through a roundabout route.”

Farage, whose communicative capacity is acknowledged by even his worst critics, continues to be present in the British public debate through his program on the conservative channel GB News, where he is considered one of its main stars. Farage has always had the ability to re-emerge in the political arena when an election approaches, but this time he has been somewhat eclipsed by Sunak, who has proven capable of handling populism just as effectively, if not quite so skillfully.

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