Sunak’s authority under attack from Indian-origin Conservatives

With just about a year left before the next general election, the Prime Minister is likely to face even more attacks on his authority

Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak under attack from two Indian origin colleagues I File Photo

In the last week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s authority has been under attack from two colleagues from his own Conservative party, both home secretaries – one former and the other current. Ironically, both are of Indian origin like Sunak himself.

The first salvo was fired at Sunak by former home minister Priti Patel at the first ever conference of the Conservative Democratic Organisation – a group within the Tory Party that claims to speak for its grassroots members and is broadly aligned with former prime minister Boris Johnson. Patel, a Johnson loyalist from the time he led the Brexit campaign, declared that the current Tory leadership was “overseeing the managed decline” of the Conservative Party.

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The Gujarati-origin Patel, who is also a huge fan of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, received a standing ovation from the Tories at the conference held at the seaside resort of Bournemouth on the southern coast of England. Patel warned that the Conservative party was in decline and pointed the finger at Sunak for bringing it to such a pass. According to her, Sunak was tearing up Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto on which the Conservatives came to power for the fourth consecutive time.

Patel and Sunak were great friends when serving in Johnson’s cabinet. Patel, then home secretary, and Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer were regularly seen cosying up to each other in parliament and were at the forefront of the shouting brigade backing Johnson.

Sunak and Patel

All the bonhomie ended last summer when Sunak resigned from the cabinet, stabbing his mentor in the back and setting himself up as a candidate in the party leadership contest. Patel remained with Johnson and only resigned once the new leader was elected.

Johnson, who has not forgiven Sunak for his betrayal, is using Patel to make life difficult for the prime minister. Johnson would like to return to Downing Street before the next general election to be held in 2024 and is using his loyalist to make the case that only can revive the Tories’ electoral fortunes and that Sunak is not up to the job.

The second person to deliver a blow to Sunak’s authority is Suella Braverman, the current home secretary whom the prime minister appointed when he took up office in October last year. The Goan-origin Braverman, whose maiden name was Sue-Ellen Cassiana Fernandes, demanded that Sunak deliver on the Conservative party manifesto promise to reduce net migration. She used her speech at the three-day National Conservatism Conference held in London to tell Sunak that it was not “xenophobic to say that mass and rapid migration is unsustainable”.

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Braverman became a leading figure in the Conservatives’ rightwing after running for the leadership last year against Sunak. She first became home secretary in the Liz Truss Cabinet but resigned within days amid a row about Truss’s proposal to increase legal immigration. Much like her predecessor in the home ministry, Braverman is hawkish about decreasing both legal and illegal immigration.

In fact, Patel as home secretary had come up with a plan to send asylum seekers to strife-torn Rwanda sending shivers down the spine of human rights activists. Braverman went one step further when she took over from Patel, famously saying in an interview that she dreamt of a planeload of asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda making the plan ‘her obsession’.

Sunak and Braverman

Braverman, despite being a second generation immigrant, has warned that an unchecked drive towards multiculturalism without successful integration is a recipe for disaster. She seems to have forgotten that if previous Labour governments had not created a multicultural, multi-religious country, then it would have been impossible for her — a brown, Indian-origin Buddhist – to be holding one of the great offices of State today.

Sunak and Braverman have been at loggerheads in the past over immigration. The Indo-UK Free Trade deal has fallen foul of New Delhi wanting more visas for Indian job seekers in return for greater access to the huge Indian market for British businesses. Braverman went so far as to declare that she will not ease visas for Indians as they are by far the highest number of ‘overstayers’ in the UK after their visas expire and thereby becoming illegal immigrants.

At the National Conservatism conference, organised by the rightwing populist US think-tank, the Edmund Burke Foundation, Braverman reminded Sunak that the 2019 Tory manifesto had pledged to bring down overall immigration numbers and build a high-skilled, high wage economy that was less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour.

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Sunak, on the other hand, has pitched growing the economy and boosting UK’s productivity at the centre of his promises to the electorate. However, the government is struggling to convince workers who left jobs during the pandemic to return and Tories on the right fear that Sunak may see migrant labour as a quick fix for vacancies.

Net migration

In 2015, David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, had promised to bring net migration – the number of people moving to Britain minus those leaving the UK to live abroad – to below one lakh. Instead, the opposite has happened. Before the Brexit vote in 2016 net migration peaked at 3.31 lakhs, and in June 2022 it hit over 5 lakhs. Official figures to be released later this month are expected to show net migration closer to 7 lakhs, with analysts suggesting it could top 10 lakhs by the end of this year.

The number of EU migrants reduced after Brexit but the number of work visas and student visas issued to foreigners, particularly Indians, jumped higher. Taking in Ukrainian refugees and Hong Kong citizens has also impacted the rise in numbers.

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Sunak has focused on illegal migration since he became prime minister, naming the passing of laws to bring down the number of small boats crossing the English Channel as one of his five priorities for the year. He is now under mounting pressure from his home minister to spell out a plan to curb legal migration too.

Having just overseen the loss of more than 1,000 Tory councillors at this month’s local elections, Sunak’s ratings in the popularity stakes are not very high. With just about a year left before the next general election, the Prime Minister is likely to face even more attacks on his authority.