(Bloomberg) — UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will cast a wary eye on protests expected in central London on Saturday as he mulls how to recover from another week — and another chance of a political reset — lost to Conservative Party turmoil.
Mass pro-Palestinian demonstrations and possible right-wing counterprotests risk compounding the damage done to Sunak’s authority by his controversial home secretary, Suella Braverman. Events over the next few days could reverberate until a general election that the prime minister is currently seen as likely to lose to opposition leader Keir Starmer.
Already under internal pressure after unveiling what many saw as a lackluster legislative agenda last week, Sunak now faces private calls from figures across the party to fire Braverman for her remarks on the march planned for Saturday. Her decision to criticize the Metropolitan Police hours after Sunak had reached an agreement with them about the protests led several Tories to privately say he should accept she’s more of a liability than a benefit.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt signaled Cabinet unease with Braverman’s remarks, telling Sky News on Friday that the “words that she used are not words that I would’ve used.”
But Sunak’s unwillingness to immediately remove Braverman raises the political stakes for how events unfold around the march planned for Westminster on Remembrance Day. Such protests have been held for the past four weekends seeking an end to Israel’s military action in Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has left more than than 10,000 Palestinians dead.
Israel is attempting to overthrow Hamas to prevent it from waging another attack like the one Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 Israelis and resulted in some 240 people being taken hostage. The UK and the US consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
While Sunak has said that holding such a protest near events to commemorate the UK’s war dead is disrespectful, Braverman has gone further. She’s called participants “hate marchers,” in reference to reports that some of them have chanted “jihad.”
English nationalist groups have pledged competing rallies to “protect” the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, fueling concerns about clashes in the capital. Some have circulated calls to action, saying they “stand with Suella.”
“There is no doubt, this is going to be a very tense week,” Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Laurence Taylor told reporters Friday. “It comes on the back of a four-week period of tensions across communities and fear across communities. Narratives throughout the week clearly play into that.”
Police have assured the government that remembrance services would be safeguarded, Sunak said late Friday in a statement. Marches will take place “far away” from remembrance events, he said. The Met said 1,850 officers would be on duty on Saturday, double the normal amount.
The turmoil surrounding Braverman this week overshadowed what was supposed to be another chance for Sunak to regain control over the narrative when King Charles III laid out the government’s legislative program in the ceremonial opening of Parliament. But the prime minister’s agenda left some Tories underwhelmed, offering little in the way of the game-changing policies they seek to stop the party losing the next general election.
Several would-be opportunities to reset have failed to move the dial, increasing pressure on Hunt to deliver an autumn fiscal plan on Nov. 22 that will excite voters. Starmer’s Labour is leading Sunak’s Conservatives by 24 percentage points, according to a YouGov poll released Thursday, a 3-point increase over the previous week.
One senior Tory said the premier didn’t appear to have a strategy to seriously contest the election. A second said the prevailing view in the parliamentary party was that Sunak had checked out.
A No. 10 official disputed that characterization, saying Sunak appeared far from disengaged and never saw the King’s Speech as a viable chance to reset.
There were signs that Sunak was preparing to shake up his Cabinet, giving him another opportunity to correct course and oust Braverman. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden held meetings this week to discuss personnel changes, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
A reshuffle might not come fast enough. The UK Supreme Court is expected to to rule on Wednesday on the legality of the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Both Sunak and Braverman have championed the measure as they try to stem the flow of boats across carrying migrants across the English Channel.
If the court rules against the government, Braverman could then repeat her demand for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. If he refuses, she could threaten to resign.
The perception Braverman is maneuvering for a future leadership contest has angered Sunak’s team in Downing Street and undercut those who argued she played an important function in helping to appease the Tory base. Some allies want him to fire her before she jumps.
For now, Sunak has decided not to react publicly as he braces for an uncertain weekend. In his statement Friday, he called for calm.
“It is because of those who fought for this country and for the freedom we cherish that those who wish to protest can do so, but they must do so respectfully and peacefully,” Sunak said. “Above all, this weekend should be about the selfless bravery of our armed forces. We shall remember them.”
–With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Irina Anghel, Jack Ryan and Stuart Biggs.
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