The immediate threat of chaos in London’s streets has subsided, but that may only provide a brief respite for Rishi Sunak as he enters one of his most consequential weeks as Britain’s prime minister.
Chief among the Rishi Sunak’s challenges is whether to fire Home Secretary Suella Braverman after her criticism of police tactics toward pro-Palestinian protesters was blamed for drawing out far-right groups that clashed with officers during mass demonstrations in the capital Saturday. On Sunday, a Downing Street official declined to say if Braverman would still be in her job in a week, while Defense Secretary Grant Shapps responded to the same question only by noting that “a week is a long time in politics.”
Rishi Sunak has come under pressure to punish Braverman for criticizing the Metropolitan Police in a newspaper commentary hours after he had appeared to resolve disputes with the force’s commissioner about protests overlapping with annual events to commemorate Britain’s war dead. Two Cabinet members on Sunday described the challenge to the prime minister’s authority as untenable, despite Braverman’s strong popularity among the Conservative Party’s right wing.
If Sunak keeps Braverman, he’ll feed efforts by Labour leader Keir Starmer to paint him as weak ahead of an expected general election next year, one Tory lawmaker said. Ousting her may prompt theright to revolt, leaving the Conservatives even more divided, another said, calling it a lose-lose situation.
More than 300,000 pro-Palestine demonstrators turned out Saturday for the largest march in London since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict more than a month ago. Some protest leaders credited Braverman – who had branded participants as “hate marchers,” in reference to reports that past events had included chants of “jihad” – with increasing public support.
The Met has also blamed the political drama for making their efforts to maintain public order more difficult. The conflict in Gaza, the Armistice Day holiday and the intense debate about protest and policing “all combined to increase community tensions,” Assistant Police Commissioner Matt Twist said late Saturday.
Shapps, who was representing the government on the Sunday political talk shows, deflected questions about Braverman’s responsibility, telling Sky News: “These marches were already going to happen. These counter-protests were already going to happen.” When asked about her future, he said the makeup of the government was a matter for the prime minister.
Police made some 145 arrests during the demonstrations Saturday, including scores of counter-protesters whom police prevented from intercepting the largely peaceful pro-Palestine march. The Met said Sunday that seven men had been charged with a variety of offenses, including assault on an emergency worker, criminal damage and possession of an offensive weapon.
“This can’t go on,” Braverman said on the social media platform X on Sunday, thanking police and calling the injuries suffered by some officers “an outrage.” While she mentioned “violence and aggression” by members of both camps, she focused her criticism on the pro-Palestine marchers.
“Antisemitism and other forms of racism together with the valorising of terrorism on such a scale is deeply troubling,” Braverman said on the platform formerly known as Twitter. Police have posted photographs on social media of people they are looking to identify over possible anti-Semitic hate crimes and supporting Hamas, which the UK has designated as a terrorist organization.
Braverman, who oversees immigration policy, is closely linked to another looming milestone for Sunak: a UK Supreme Court ruling due Wednesday on the legality of the government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The timing complicates the prime minister’s decision on Braverman because waiting until after the judgment is handed down risks making it look like the two events were related.
The government isn’t confident it will win the Rwanda case, the Downing Street official said.
Some Conservative officials were bracing for a Cabinet shake-up, which they believed could come as soon as Monday, when Sunak’s public schedule is clear other than a foreign policy speech in the evening. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden held meetings last week to discuss a potential reshuffle, Bloomberg reported last week.
Several Tory lawmakers have privately urged Sunak to sack Braverman, echoing public demands for her exit by the opposition Labour Party.
“She inflamed tension, she also attacked the police, undermined respect for the police at a really important time – that was highly irresponsible,” Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, told the BBC on Sunday. “It is just not the way any home secretary would do that job other than Suella Braverman, and Rishi Sunak is being so weak that he is allowing her to do that. It is very damaging.”