Suella Braverman’s Resignation Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to the Far Right

From frontbencher to far-right figurehead.

by Aaron Winter

4 December 2023

Former home secretary Suella Braverman attends Tory party conference, October 2023. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Reuters

On 13 November, Suella Braverman resigned as home secretary in a move that took few by surprise. Days earlier, on Armistice Day, far-right activists and football hooligans, led by former English Defence League (EDL) leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson, staged a counter-protest against the national march for Palestine. They stormed the barricades and clashed with police guarding the Cenotaph, leaving nine officers injured and 82 counter-protesters arrested. Braverman had been widely seen to be stoking tensions in advance of what she branded, along with other pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place around the UK, a “hate march”.

In addition to demonising peaceful protests, many saw Braverman as encouraging the far right specifically. This was particularly evident in her use of their calling cards, including national identity, valorisation of the military, virulent Islamophobia and suspicion of the police. Such suspicion that the police are “woke” has also motivated much of the anti-grooming gang activism that has taken place in the north of England in recent years, and which Braverman has been accused of encouraging. While the far right has a long history of such activism, they found a new champion in Braverman. Her quitting will leave them without mainstream legitimacy or frontbench cover – though it might paradoxically serve to encourage their growth as they await Braverman’s inevitable return.

Since its most recent heydey in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when the BNP were an electoral force and Nick Griffin appeared on BBC Question Time, the traditional far right gradually went into decline, although some have clearly returned emboldened. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the persistent legal troubles faced by its leaders such as Tommy Robinson, who has in recent years been charged with assault, libel and contempt of court. Another is that the far right’s politics have been co-opted and mainstreamed by the Conservative government, often under the auspices of fending off the competition they, particularly UKIP, may pose and securing white working-class votes. A third is a deliberate attempt by that same government to also downplay the threat of the far right in order to continue the focus on their shared targets: migrants and Muslims: in his 2021 independent review of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, William Shawcross argued that the threat posed by the far right was overblown, and distracted from the more urgent focus on Islamism, in addition to the difficulty distinguishing between the far and mainstream right. One of Braverman’s mistakes – at least in Sunak’s eyes – was drawing attention to the fact that the far right had been mainstreamed and possibly operationalised.

Braverman’s comments about the Palestine demo were only the latest in a series of dog whistles to the far right. One of the most notorious came after the attack in February this year on a hotel housing asylum seekers in Merseyside. While Braverman condemned the attack, she worded her condemnation in a manner which quite clearly blamed the victims: the “alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence,” Braverman said. Yet Braverman’s dog-whistle rhetoric, harmful as it was, paled in comparison to her policies.

A month after the hotel incident, in March 2023, Braverman introduced the Illegal Migration bill to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats by arresting, detaining and deporting them. Braverman’s support for deportation is also a longstanding far-right trope, although historically it has been in support of repatriation. Braverman’s most high-profile policy has been the deportation of failed asylum seekers to Rwanda. The plan received a great deal of criticism, was rejected by the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasburg. Taunting her critics and those who will potentially be included in the flights, as well as predicting a victory, Braverman referred to the possible start of flights in 2023 as her “dream”. This would not happen though as both the ECHR and UK supreme court, enemies of the far right along with international law and judicial bodies, deemed the policy unlawful and Braverman and the government, who also undermined the courts repeatedly, were about to lose their flagship policy. It was not, I suspect, only down to the far right at the Cenotaph. It is rarely more than one thing or one person.

When Braverman stepped down, it was as if her extremism was finally exposed and could be expunged from the government. I am not convinced. What happens to her next? What happens to the far right without a representative in the cabinet?

With Braverman on the front bench, the Tories had someone to articulate their more extreme ideas and scapegoat if they backfired. Without her, it may be harder for Sunak to hide his agenda. Sunak is under a great deal of pressure and Starmer’s Labour, which instead of offering opposition from the left is attempting to outgun the Tories on Israel and immigration. Immediately after sacking Braverman, Sunak brought in former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary. Far from moving away from or watering down Braverman’s extreme ideas, Cameron – who lest we forget launched the hostile environment, attacked multiculturalism, triggered the Brexit referendum and oversaw austerity – merely provides the semblance of sensible centrism but with much of the same political substance. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage is currently rehabilitating his image through a successful appearance at the 2023 Conservative party conference and on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. This presents Braverman with an opportunity – as well as pressure – to capture the far-right flank.

While many in her position would go quietly, let the smoke clear and return with a strategy, Braverman wrote a poison pen letter attacking Sunak and laying out both his failings and her agenda on migration. This points to a future Tory leadership challenge which could capture the imagination of the far right, exploit the fragmentation of the Tory party and fully revive fascism in this country. Braverman and other members of the Tory right have seen the recent electoral successes of Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Javier Milei in Argentina and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands (not to mention Trump’s seemingly inevitable comeback). That is not to say Braverman would win, but the attempt or increased attention, along with Farage’s rehabilitation and a rabid rightwing media, would wrench the national conversation even further to the right. Even an unsuccessful run from Braverman would embolden far-right street activists, who could rebrand as a civil defence and anti-hate movement as happened at the pro-Palestine demo on 11 November and the March Against Antisemitism on the 25th (where Robinson was arrested again). This will inevitably create a more dangerous situation for those at the sharp end of such politics and further impede the fight against inequality and injustice, particularly without anything resembling a leftwing party to oppose it.

Aaron Winter is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Lancaster, and the co-author of Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream.

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