Saturday, 11 October 2023 and the days following will likely go down as one of the most chaotic and tempestuous periods in the history of modern British politics, in which no less than five major incidents took place. The interval kicked off with Saturday’s Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, both of which commemorate the horrors of World War I, in which 20 million individuals died. The two typically solemn and dignified days were marred by violence around The Cenotaph in London, a war memorial dedicated to British soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War. The disorder stemmed from two clashing demonstrations that took place Sunday morning – a pro-Palestinian march attended by hundreds of thousands of individuals and a far-right counter-protest – which confronted each other at the capital, leading to the arrest of 145 individuals, seven of whom were charged following the events, according to the Metropolitan Police. The charges leveled against the offenders ranged from “assault of an emergency worker” and “possession of a knife” to a count of “racially aggravated assault.”
The next day, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made perhaps the boldest decision of his political career so far by firing Home Secretary Suella Braverman following her highly controversial opinion piece written in The Times the Wednesday before in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In her article, Braverman called for the country’s police to be stronger in their clamp-downs against the allegedly “tens of thousands of angry demonstrators” who are a part of the pro-Palestinian movement. Braverman also claimed that the marches are not “merely a cry for help for Gaza”, but rather “an assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists — of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland.” Those last few words drew particular criticism from politicians across the United Kingdom, and were labeled a “display of aggressive ignorance” by the leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy described it as “an appalling new low,” calling for her immediate dismissal from the cabinet. The decision to sack Braverman was officially made by Sunak on Monday, and the former retaliated with a scathing letter the following day. Braverman claimed that the Prime Minister had “manifestly and repeatedly failed to deliver” on the key priorities laid out when Sunak assumed office in October 2022. The former Home Secretary directly confronted Sunak’s policy approach, arguing that his “plan is not working (…) and we are running out of time” adding that the Prime Minister “need(s) to change course urgently”.
Braverman’s sacking was directly followed by a cabinet reshuffle, the second of Sunak’s premiership – after the shake-up in February 2023. By far the biggest surprise of this reshuffle was the reintroduction of former Prime Minister David Cameron (2010-2016) into government as Foreign Secretary. Cameron – who has now also assumed the title of ‘Lord’ – has not served the government since his resignation following the results of the Brexit referendum in which the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union, a move he had campaigned against. Cameron has replaced James Cleverly, who in turn has assumed the role of Home Secretary vacated by Braverman. The cabinet reshuffle also included a circulation of three ministers: Victoria Atkins left to replace Steve Barclay as Health Minister, the latter of whom was moved to the Department of Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs, displacing the former Secretary Therese Coffey. The reshuffle has been seen by many as a statement of intent by Sunak, who is undoubtedly desperate to restore stability in what has been a tenuous premiership. In bringing back Cameron, Sunak has turned to a senior figure who, despite controversy, brings a certain wisdom and know-how to a position that is of utmost importance in the current geopolitical climate. Braverman’s ouster and the subsequent reshuffle were not universally well-received among Conservative (Tory) Members of Parliament (MPs), however, and by Wednesday afternoon at least 6 had submitted letters of no-confidence, although these are not likely to carry with them any long-term consequences for the Prime Minister.
Sunak’s problems did not end there, however. Just as he was attempting to introduce a sense of calm and formality into the government, he was dealt another blow on an issue that has long loomed over him. On the morning of Wednesday, 15 November, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that the Conservative ‘Rwanda asylum plan’ was illegal, setting up a showdown between all three branches of the British government. The policy, first proposed in April of last year, would have taken migrants seeking asylum in the UK and relocated them to Rwanda by plane, barring them from entering the country henceforth. The scheme has since come under enormous scrutiny, with one glaring target of criticism being Rwanda’s ignominious human rights record: it has been less than 30 years since the Central African nation suffered one of the worst recorded genocides in human history, which killed at least 800,000 individuals. The tragedy marked the death of up to 70% of Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi population, who were the primary targets of the mass violence. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the policy is centered around the international legal principle of non-refoulement, a near-unanimously accepted legal standard which prohibits the practice of returning refugees to either their home country, the country they traveled from, or a third country in which they are likely to come into harm’s way.
Non-refoulement is enforced in international treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the UN Refugee Convention, and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), all of which the United Kingdom is party to. However, the Prime Minister does not seem inclined to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling, as he soon after declared that he would “not allow a foreign court to block the government’s plan”, warning the European Court of Human Rights that he was “prepared to do what is necessary to get flights off.” The current government put a large focus on immigration reforms, with one of the Prime Minister’s five priorities for 2023 being the passage of new laws to stop the arrival of illegal migrants, particularly by sea, as small boat arrivals accounted for nearly half of all 2022 asylum requests. Sunak’s plan to push on with the policy by ignoring the UK’s own Human Rights Act, has received a mixed reception within the Conservative party, garnering support from Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Minister, with some Tory peers dismissing a potential fast-track bill as “wildly unpopular legislation.”
While the Tories squabbled, many were expecting their Labour counterparts to pounce on the opportunity and seize more political capital, seeking to position themselves as a ‘government in waiting’ ahead of the fast-approaching general election. The opposition, however, became entangled in turmoil of its own, as party leader Sir Keir Starmer faced an internal rebellion over the ongoing suffering in Gaza. Starmer’s calls for brief pauses in the fighting for deliveries of humanitarian aid have been denounced as insufficient by many of his party subordinates, with 56 Labour MPs voting for the Scottish National Party’s (SNPs) motion for an immediate ceasefire on the evening of Wednesday, 15 November, leading to resignations from 10 frontbench MPs, eight of whom were shadow ministers. Among the departees was Jess Phillips, Shadow Minister for Domestic Abuse and Safeguarding, who clarified in her resignation letter that she was taking a stance with her head, heart, and constituents, adding that there was no animosity between her and Starmer. While Labour will still consider themselves in a better position than the Tories, an inevitable continuation of the fighting in the Levant could pose some difficult intra-party questions down the road.
All in all, the week following 11 November can arguably be seen as a microcosm of the 13 years of British politics since the Conservatives regained power, which coincidentally began with David Cameron’s premiership, a perpetual race in which a powerful – yet clumsy – Conservative party trips over their own feet, and the divided Labour opposition fail to capitalize. Only time will tell what the future has in store, but one would be reasonable to wager a guess that the kind of disaffection and grappling seen in recent weeks is here to stay.