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Suella Braverman's trap for Starmer

Braverman is now the most likely successor to Rishi Sunak - and while she's not likely to win elections, she'll use her position to drag the Overton window ever further to the right. Labour mustn't let her. 

November 18 2023, 14.49pm
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This has been a good week if you disagree with the Tories’ sadistic shambles of an asylum policy: Rwanda plan dead and buried, asylum seekers are starting to get their long-overdue right to work (thank you for signing our petition and distributing our dedicated print issue!), and, saving the best for the last, Suella Braverman is gone. Again.

It’s perfectly reasonable to sit back and savour it all. And yet, it would be a mistake to get too complacent. Not only because the Tories are still very much in power, and not only because some iteration of the Rwanda plan may well be attempted, even if Rishi Sunak will need to literally legislate alternative facts to get there. But also because there is little doubt that Braverman will rise again, soon—and when she does, it’ll be to set a very particular trap for Labour. 

Braverman’s blistering parting shot—and her equally unreserved commentary since—make it plain that her primary purpose was to set herself up (again) as a leadership contender. In the bitterly divided and blithely detached Conservative party she is a formidable figure who dispenses with even lip service to pragmatism and moderation: a clear counterpoint to Rishi Sunak’s belated, panicked swerve back towards the centre-right. As of the time of writing, Braverman appears to be the likeliest candidate to succeed him. 

It is tempting for anyone not on the extreme right to respond: what of it? If Braverman takes over before the election, the Tories will completely abandon even the last inches of centre ground, leaving it all to Labour. If she takes over after the defeat, she’ll preside over a bitter, brittle, divided and shrunken Tory party that will not see the government benches for at least a decade. Surely, this is a win-win. 

Not so. Even if humbled and diminished, the Conservatives will remain the main opposition party, giving its leader a unique position to influence the Overton window: the scope of acceptable debate. And if that leader is Braverman, there is little doubt she will use every appearance at the dispatch box to drag that window ever further to the extreme right; on anything from freedom of speech to human rights to immigration. 

This makes her a particular threat to Keir Starmer. Starmer’s strategy has been to largely avoid strongly-worded, principled attacks on the moral and political grounds of Tory policies. He cast himself rather as the patient pragmatist, pointing out time after time that wherever you stand ideologically, it’s plain to see that the Tories’ legislative and budgetary concoctions are failing, even on their own terms. 

This approach has its critics, but so far, electorally, it appears to have stood him in good stead as opposition leader and prime-minister-in-waiting. It would be an absolute disaster, however, to maintain it when he is actual prime minister - and especially if he is faced with Braverman as opposition leader.

If she continues to rant and rally against immigrants and protesters and trans people (and woke police, and lefty lawyers, and so on and so forth) it will be incumbent upon Starmer to not act like she is describing real problems but failing to come up with reasonable solutions. She will need to be condemned as the inciting, hate mongering and fear mongering extremist that she is - and his only response should be to insist, repeatedly, that her peeves and obsessions do not begin to reflect the actual needs and priorities of the British people. 

If chosen as leader, Braverman will likely continue pushing the Conservative party even further out into the margins of far-right extremism, dragging the acceptable centre ground behind her. It is essential that Labour doesn't follow, but yanks it back. 

(D.R.)