Rishi Sunak has been warned by George Osborne that he risks looking weak unless he sacks Suella Braverman, after an extraordinary row erupted over the home secretary’s incendiary claim that the police are biased.
Ms Braverman’s job is on the line after Downing Street made clear that it had not approved an extraordinary article in which she accused officers of playing favourites over a pro-Palestine march on Armistice Day. No 10 says it is investigating after it demanded that changes be made to the piece but the request was ignored.
As the home secretary’s claims sparked a furious outcry, one Conservative minister broke ranks to accuse her of fuelling “hatred and division”.
Mr Osborne said Mr Sunak could “demonstrate strength” by sacking the home secretary, having “come very close” to firing her in the past. The “power to hire but also ... to fire is the real demonstration of prime ministerial power,” added the former chancellor.
In an extraordinary day of developments:
Several senior Conservatives demanded that the prime minister fire Ms Braverman, with chair of the justice committee Bob Neill describing her position as ‘untenable’
Former home secretary Jack Straw said the PM must sack her following her “extraordinary” attack on the police
A deputy chair of the Conservative Party described her comments as “dangerous”
Policing top brass accused Ms Braverman of crossing a line and threatening their operational independence
Ms Braverman was accused of emboldening far-right groups to come out in counter-demonstrations
Labour said the cabinet minister was “out of control”
Ms Braverman’s future as home secretary is now in doubt after No 10 announced it was looking into how the article had come to be published. Downing Street also distanced itself from Ms Braverman’s accusations of bias, saying that the prime minister believes the police “will operate without fear or favour”.
In her op-ed in The Times, Ms Braverman wrote: “Unfortunately, there is a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters.”
She continued: “Right-wing and nationalist protesters who engage in aggression are rightly met with a stern response yet pro-Palestinian mobs displaying almost identical behaviour are largely ignored, even when clearly breaking the law?”
She also sparked outrage by claiming that Islamists were using the Gaza demonstrations to express “primacy”, and compared the events to rallies in Northern Ireland.
Ms Braverman’s article is only her latest controversy in recent days. She has described the protests as “hate marches”, claimed that some people are homeless as a “lifestyle choice”, and proposed restricting the use of tents by rough sleepers.
Her comments sparked a furious row within the Conservative Party as senior Tories urged Mr Sunak to sack her. One former cabinet minister told The Independent it is unacceptable to “publicly undermine the police in this way” and said Ms Braverman should be “returned to the back benches”.
Another former cabinet minister said: “She is obviously goading Sunak into sacking her now.” A former Tory minister added: “She should be fired.” One Tory MP accused her of “sticking two fingers up at No 10” and agreed that it was time for Mr Sunak to finally get rid of her, while another senior Conservative, also a former minister, said Ms Braverman was now a “liability” to the party and that Mr Sunak would be damaged if he “lets her continue peddling inflated rhetoric”.
Asked about her remarks, the Tory minister for London, Paul Scully, said: “We’ve got to make sure that we concentrate on dampening things down rather than fuelling that sort of hatred and that division.”
Nickie Aiken, a deputy chair of the Conservative Party, said Ms Braverman’s comments were “dangerous”.
In his podcast Political Currency, Mr Osborne also said the PM could “assert authority, demonstrate that he's the change candidate and then throw the challenge to Keir Starmer and say: ‘I’ve ... imposed discipline on my front bench. When are you going to impose discipline on your[s] ... [over] Gaza?’ If you’re in Sunak’s position, you've got to keep thinking, ‘What are the manoeuvres I can pull off that are going to change the political dynamic at the moment?’ – and that dynamic, at the moment, is working against him.”
Mr Straw, a former Labour home secretary, told The Independent that Mr Sunak “needs to fire her”. “He needs to show he understands there is a line to be drawn, and uphold the independence of the police,” he said. The New Labour grandee added that picking a fight with the police showed a “fundamental lack of judgement, and failing to sack her would be further evidence of a lack of judgement by [the prime minister]”.
Ms Braverman failed to attend the Commons to answer an urgent question on the issue. Answering for her, policing minister Chris Philp said she was with a family member who had been in hospital. He refused to back her claim that the police are biased, and said it was right that the force is operationally independent from the government.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Ms Braverman was “out of control” and that her “bias” accusation was an attempt to “rip up the operational independence of police” and was “deliberately inflaming community tensions”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM of being too “weak” to sack her, while London mayor Sadiq Khan condemned the home secretary’s remarks as “inaccurate, inflammatory and irresponsible”.
Mark Harper, the transport secretary, said he disagreed with Ms Braverman’s remarks. “I think all police forces are focused on upholding the law without fear or favour – that’s what they do,” he said.
The Metropolitan Police have come under huge pressure from Mr Sunak, Ms Braverman, and other senior Tory ministers to ban Saturday’s march in London – but have said that the law would allow them to do so only in “extreme cases”.
MPs on the right of the party rallied to Ms Braverman’s defence. Tory MP Miriam Cates said Mrs Braverman’s language “reflects the public mood”.
The Met has urged march organisers to “urgently reconsider” the event on Saturday because of a growing risk of violence, but the pro-Palestinian coalition behind it has refused to call it off.
The force could request the power to ban the event under Section 13 of the Public Order Act 1986 – but that would only apply if there was a threat of serious public disorder.
The planned route for the London march goes from Hyde Park – about a mile from the war memorial in Whitehall – to the US embassy in Vauxhall, south of the Thames.