Downing Street turmoil

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Tory infighting has bolstered the extreme far right, which might cost the Conservative Party a humiliating defeat this year.

Downing Street turmoil


British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had reportedly hoped that parliament’s three-week break would start on a positive note for his Conservative MPs. Hours before he bragged about the economy, however, two of his cabinet ministers resigned — forcing him to announce yet another minor reshuffle. They were the last of some 60 Conservative MPs who are not running for their seats in parliament.

Macroeconomic indicators may point to a slight improvement, with the recession offset in the second half of 2023, but the Conservative Party is still in steep decline, destined to lose the next election whether or not Sunak remains at its helm. Since January it has lost two by-elections, one to Labour — led by an equally controversial politician, Kier Starmer — and the other to the maverick George Galloway, who campaigned against the two major parties’ position on the Gaza war. The Conservatives will probably also lose a third by-election on local elections day next month.

Hoping that data demonstrating economic improvement might bolster his party’s chances, Sunak has ruled out a general election before the second half of the year. But Conservatives are already 20 points behind Labour in the polls, and by autumn Sunak may not still be prime minister. If the results of the local elections on 2 May are similar to the polls, Sunak is likely to be ousted from party leadership. The polls also predict that Conservatives will lose up to 500 of the 1000 local council seats they are defending, with Labour gaining some 300. Over 2600 local council seats will be contested, along with the London mayor and council member seats.

Right-wing Conservative MPs have already been plotting to oust Sunak, and if the party is badly defeated next month that might spark a serious revolt. Only 50 out of the party’s 348 MPs need to send letters of no confidence to trigger an election to replace Sunak, the outcome of which is likely to be a right-wing win. In fact, the far-right is the winning trend in British politics — not only because of strong anti-immigration rhetoric and calls to curb cultural diversity but also because the mainstream parties are themselves drifting further and further right in their electioneering campaigns — which tends to embolden the far right. Analysts have pointed out how Nigel Farage’s extremist Reform Party may well take votes away from both Labour and Conservatives.

In the latest YouGov poll, the Reform Party gained 15 compared to 19 per cent for the Conservatives. Labour kept its lead at 44 per cent, almost 25 points ahead of the Conservatives. The third mainstream party, the Liberal Democrats (LibDem) lagged behind Reform at nine per cent, while the Greens took eight per cent. Polls have not always been the most accurate indicators of election results in recent years and they could prove wrong. Yet the far-right’s ascent in British politics is undeniable. One recent illustration of this was on display at the weekly anti-war marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza when right-wingers organised a smaller march raising Israeli flags to counter the big anti-war march on the last Saturday of last month.

Conservative figureheads are defecting to the Reform Party. The latest of those was the mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester Dan Baker, who will run next month as a Reform candidate. Weeks ago, the former deputy chief of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson defected to Reform. He was suspended from the party after a racist statement in a TV interview in which he claimed that Islamists “have got control of London and [its Mayor Sadiq] Khan”. It appears more and more likely that Labour will be taking over and probably form the next government, after almost 15 years of Conservative rule. But the opposition has had its share of disputes and infighting. Some senior members of Labour have wondered whether Starmer is presenting as “more conservative than Sunak.” This is not only the view of the party’s progressive ranks condemning Starmer’s position on the Gaza war, but also the centre of the party.

The elections must be held prior to January 2025 and with a few months remaining to the anticipated general elections date, we will probably witness further turmoil in British politics. This will be exacerbated after next month’s local elections. The image of the Conservative Party seems beyond repair but so far the biggest beneficiaries of this is the far right.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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