Rishi Sunak pursues populist approach as elections draw closer

Tory chief responds to UK’s economic woes and Labour’s poll lead with hardline tactics

Published : 21 Sep 2023 07:56 PM | Updated : 21 Sep 2023 07:56 PM

When Rishi Sunak came to India last week for the G20 summit, accompanied by his wife Akshata Murthy, the Indian media went into a frenzy. The Indian-origin British prime minister was feted when he moved into 10 Downing Street and the fact that he wears his “Hindu-ness” on his sleeve made him popular, especially among the BJP’s followers.

Ironically, he is perhaps the most socially conservative prime minister Britain has ever seen. The Economist described Sunak as “the most right-wing Conservative leader of his generation.” This is even more ironic when you look at not just Sunak’s family history but also those of his conservative colleagues from different ethnic backgrounds. His conservatism, many British analysts point out, is not driven by electoral necessity. It is something he ideologically believes in. This includes a tough anti-immigration stand.

No change in UK immigration policy

Ahead of his India visit, Sunak’s office told reporters that the United Kingdom will not alter its immigration policy to secure a free trade deal with India. The deal has been hanging fire for over two years. “The prime minister believes that the current levels of migration are too high,” a spokesperson for Sunak told reporters. “...To be crystal clear, there are no plans to change our immigration policy to achieve this free trade agreement and that includes student visas.” Last year, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that Indians make up the largest number of visa overstayers in the UK.

Then there is Rishi Sunak’s hard line on asylum seekers, where he has brought in a law to effectively stop those fleeing persecution and conflict from coming to the UK. He has made stopping small boats one of his top five priorities and said the cost of the asylum system was “unacceptable”. 

The legislation includes measures to send all irregular arrivals to “safe” third countries such as Rwanda to provide a deterrent against illegal migration. Legal challenges have thwarted the Rwanda plan for the moment. The United Nations has described it as a “worrying precedent”.

The common refrain seems that as Britain’s general

 election draws closer (it has to be held sometime 

next year), an increasingly wary Sunak is embracing 

a more populist approach to appeal to the Tory core base

According to UK government figures, 19,382 people had crossed the Channel on small boats by August 24 this year. But small boat crossings in the first six months of 2023 were 10 per cent down on the same period last year. Sunak cited this to declare that his plan was working.

His contempt for transgender rights has also stood out but may endear him to conservative voters. However, latest reports say Sunak is considering ditching plans to use legislation to ban children from changing gender at schools over concerns that such a law would be seen as draconian. Sunak’s government has also taken a new direction on the climate change fight, controversially allowing new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, among other things. His party has attacked London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan for expanding London’s ultra-low emission zone for vehicles.

The common refrain seems that as Britain’s general election draws closer (it has to be held sometime next year), an increasingly wary Sunak is embracing a more populist approach to appeal to the Tory core base. The UK is going through a bad economic patch, with high inflation, a cost of living crisis, a crumbling healthcare system and high crime reported from the capital London. 

In polls, the opposition Labour Party has a solid double-digit lead over the Tories. All this seems to have prompted Sunak to try and ditch his technocrat image and embrace a more right-wing persona.

On illegal migration, he recently described Labour as a ‘subset of criminal gangs’, an unusual offensive that raised eyebrows. However, he is not being compelled to play the right-wing card. It is something he firmly believes in. And is happy to wear it on his sleeve.

Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning Indian journalist. She has extensively reported on politics and diplomacy. 

Source: Gulf News