Eventful London: Suella’s Fall; Starmer’s Evasions

Photograph Source: ukhouseoflords – CC BY 2.0

I have just returned after spending a week in London, attending the always engaging Historical Materialism conference, the pro-Palestine march which drew hundreds of thousands of protesters, and the major David Hockney exhibition, marking his 80th birthday, at the National Portrait Gallery.

Both the Tory prime minister and the Labour leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, have espoused Joe Biden’s line and called for “humanitarian pauses” instead of a ceasefire in Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The march was directed at both Labour and the Tories, but the open Tory civil war which broke out at the same time enabled Starmer to duck somewhat into the background (at least for a short time).

The focus of the Tory civil war was Sue Ellen Cassiana Fernandes (Braverman since 2018), a brown-skinned child of immigrants who cosplays a white racist. Suella, as she prefers to be called, published an article in The Times just before the march in which she labeled the demonstration calling for a Gaza ceasefire a “hate march” (this was not the first time she had used such language about pro-Palestine protests).

In the article Braverman attacked the police as being politically biased for refusing to ban the lawfully-organized march.

Since she was made Home Secretary by Rishi Sunak Braverman’s been involved in a series of rows, often irritating No 10 Downing Street with her comments.

Braverman floated the idea of banning charities from giving tents to homeless people, saying they were “occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice”.

She had angered others by referring to the arrival of asylum seekers in small boats from across the Channel as “the invasion on our southern coast”.

At October’s Conservative party conference, Braverman made an over-blown populist speech attacking the “luxury beliefs” of liberal-leaning people, and prompted a Tory London assembly member who is gay to heckle her for making their party look “transphobic”. He was removed quickly from the conference hall by a couple of heavies.

Braverman was so bent on undermining Sunak’s authority that he had little choice but to show her the door. After all, he had only made her Home Secretary in order to secure his right flank from attacks by the Tory knuckle-dragger base during his campaign for the party leadership. Braverman alluded to this in a furious 3-page letter responding to her sacking, where she accused him of reneging on apparent undertakings he had given as a condition of her accepting the Home Secretaryship.

Sunak conducted an immediate cabinet reshuffle in which he appointed the then Foreign Secretary to be Braverman’s replacement as Home Secretary, and, to much surprise, brought back the tainted David Cameron, who had been prime minister from 2010 to 2016, to be Foreign Secretary. Cameron, who left parliament after he lost the Brexit referendum in 2016, now had to be appointed to the House of Lords as Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton before he could assume his position as Foreign Secretary.

Sunak had taken recently to referring himself as the “change” prime minister (though no one seemed to know what that meant, least of all Sunak himself), and the media was soon replete with delicious satire on how appointing a has-been politician to his cabinet could conceivably represent any kind of plausible “change”.

Compared to the Tories, Labour’s rank and file tend to be more pro-Palestinian, and this is now the underlying factor in challenges confronting its (self-declared Zionist) leader Keir Starmer,  who faces calls for a ceasefire, as opposed to short-term pauses, in Gaza’s catastrophe.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) called for a parliamentary vote on a resolution for a ceasefire, partly with the undeclared but obvious intention of embarrassing the pusillanimous Starmer.

Dozens of backbenchers, as well as 8 shadow ministers, defied Starmer to back the SNP resolution, which however was defeated when put to a vote. This was the biggest challenge to his authority since he became Labour leader in 2020, but Starmer was fortunate in two respects.

Firstly, the rebels seemed mindful that Labour is a government in waiting, and couched their opposition with a decorum far removed from the unbridled ferocity marking current conflicts in the Tory party.

Secondly, the rebels were not joined by major figures in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, the resignation of one or two of whom would have been a far bigger problem for him than what was now amounting to a rebellion very much from his party’s second tier.

Starmer stressed his anti-ceasefire position in his response to the Labour rebels, but his tone was somewhat low-key. Eschewing his usual tactic of threatening critics with expulsion from the party, he did leave himself open to the possibility of backing a ceasefire at some point in the future, saying, “My focus has always been on what will make a material difference on the ground”.

Given his repeated lying on this and other occasions, anyone who believes Starmer on Gaza’s catastrophe is likely to believe in the efficacy of magic potions.                                        

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.