Rishi Sunak's Appeal For Far-Right Populism


Will Sunak's half-hearted appeal to far-right populism secure a win in the General Election?

Article Image

Image by Lauren Hurley/ No 10 Downing Street

By Rebecca Leyland

A month ago, I was in London getting a taxi with my parents. Once the driver – a white British man – realised that my mother had grown up in the city and then moved away, he told her to ‘never come back to London’. We paused, expecting him to disparage the rising house prices or air pollution, but he didn’t. Instead, he told us that there were ‘too many Muslims’ in the city. He then proceeded to tell us of how ‘stupid’ the new green measures were for taxis. I was astounded. This type of blatant racism and ignorance is something many people in Britain have encountered in their daily lives, however, in recent years it seems that this language is now emerging from areas of power. Notably, from our Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak knows that the traditional image of the Conservative party will not hold up against Keir Starmer, whom the Labour party are looking to tout as ‘the voice of reason’ in the political chaos of recent years. As a result, in a bid to regain the voters lost by the Tories’ failed promises, Sunak is turning to populism. He is attempting to follow the footsteps of other far-right European leaders such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders by doubling down on climate change measures and upping the ante on Islamophobic and transphobic sentiment. It is clear that Rishi Sunak, our wealthiest leader to date, does not actually believe in the politics he espouses – instead he has chosen what he thinks will statistically be his most likely path to victory. This is precisely why this act comes across as not only insidious but also phoney, it is a pretence. It was not long ago that we saw the video come out of Sunak boasting about funnelling money to wealthy Tories in Tunbridge Wells. His nervous movement towards populism feels especially laughable when compared to the figures he is attempting to imitate. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump may have absurd ideas and principles, but at least they have backbones – Sunak, on the other hand, feels like a businessman playing dress-up as a politician, one that has chosen to invest in the safest stock. To play this card, he has chosen the route of callous barbs and backtracking rather than any real action, leaving Keir Starmer with a clear path to victory in the 2024 election.

Whilst this might initially appear simply comic, it is not. Rishi Sunak has created irreversible damage during his time as Prime Minister. Crucially, his decision to ignore the advice of the Climate Change Committee and take a U-turn on net zero strategy will have long-term consequences not only environmentally but also economically – the very thing that he claimed to want to prevent. In Sunak’s speech last September he claimed his U-turn was to stop people having to sort their rubbish into different bins. It was not. It is a clear appeal to people like the taxi driver I met in London, to those who would rather do nothing now and let the future generations pay for their mistakes. In that same speech, Sunak said that during “big decisions”, politicians “too often, motivated by short term thinking, […] have taken the easy way out”. Yet, that is exactly what Sunak has done during his time as leader. To take no action on climate change is to make a massive decision for the future of our country. Yes, it is true that the net zero measures could have been altered to help the UK better transition – but the answer was never to scrap them entirely. Sunak claims to be trying to help the people by scrapping energy efficiency standards, but getting rid of measures like this will only harm those struggling. The removal of energy efficiency standards will help landlords by getting rid of an upfront cost for them, whilst leaving rising bills for those renting. This kind of short term appeasement which will only end up helping the very wealthiest is indicative of the Prime Minister’s entire brand.

Islamophobic attacks are up 600% since the Hamas attack on Israel last October according to the charity Tell MAMA, which tracks anti-Muslim incidents in the UK. Rishi Sunak has exacerbated this through his leadership – when asked by Labour’s Zarah Sultana to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Sunak responded callously: “Perhaps the honourable lady would do well to call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate the situation.” This kind of language shows exactly the type of person that Rishi Sunak is, a person who would choose to exercise hateful tropes and jibes rather than actually address the important questions he is being asked. He is exactly the type of politician he talked about in his September speech, who will take “the easy way out” over and over again. It is clear that he is attempting to appeal to those who believe they are being harmed by multiculturalism and immigration, by placing himself among them as someone who would disregard anyone not in complete support of so-called ‘British values’, as proven by his recent attacks on the rights we have in Britain to protest for what we believe in. When compared to a party like Reform UK, the Prime Minister’s biggest competitor besides Starmer, Sunak does not come across as calculated, cool or in-touch. Instead, his jokes merely seem cruel. Sunak is failing to win over any side of the political debate as his actions do not seem that of a savvy leader, but instead that of a man desperately clutching at straws in order to keep himself in power.

The Prime Minister’s transphobic comments earlier this month have put the last nail in the coffin. Sunak was told that Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered transgender teen, Brianna Ghey, was in the room and despite this, he proceeded to cruelly joke that on defining a woman, Labour made “only 99% of a U-turn”. This remark and his refusal to apologise has cemented his reputation as a man who does not actually care about the people of Great Britain, instead his only care is how he will appear to prospective voters. He is a man willing to make any statement, dance any dance and sing any song if it will get him over the finish line. However, this lack of principle is obvious to anybody who has been watching him perform during the last year and a half as Prime Minister and it will come back to bite him when Keir Starmer wins the next general election.

Rishi Sunak’s attempts to imitate other populist far-right leaders are half-hearted at best, with him resorting to punchlines and cruelty rather than risk isolating either the far-right or centrist sides of the Conservative party. Sunak is both trying to appease people like the taxi driver I met in London and those on the fence about whether to vote for him or Starmer – and these two groups are so far apart that attempting to find a middle ground is a farce. This shows exactly why the UK needs to get the Tories out, their leader is spineless and unwilling to make any real change. If Sunak gets back in office, Britain will be left in the shambles it has been in ever since Brexit. When the time to vote comes, it should be clear that Rishi Sunak will not make the sacrifices necessary to secure the UK’s future: his beliefs lie in what he thinks will keep him popular for the longest time, not what is actually best for the people of this country.