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In the name of God, lead

The Prime Minister appears terrified of making a stand against racism in his own party

Artillery Row

In retrospect the best clue to what Rishi Sunak would be like as prime minister can be found in the letter that ended his time as chancellor of the exchequer.

Sunak refuses to explain what it is about Anderson’s words that was unacceptable and wrong

Given that it precipitated the fall of Boris Johnson, it’s a surprisingly under-examined document. Over nine paragraphs, Sunak explains that he has been loyal to Johnson even when he disagrees with him, but can go on no longer because… why? Unwilling to confront Johnson fans in the Conservative ranks, he never explains. The result was that Sunak was denounced for stabbing Johnson in the back, but could never take credit for calling out the former prime minister’s lies.

This, it turns out, is Sunak’s particular skill: to pay the price for doing the right thing without getting any of the benefit. It is a people-pleasing trait, a reluctance, even when he is taking a stand on an issue, to make a case that might upset a potential supporter.

We see it again with Lee Anderson. We are told that Anderson’s words about Sadiq Khan are unacceptable and wrong, so unacceptable and wrong that Anderson can no longer sit as a Conservative MP. This is a decision not without cost to Sunak: there are plenty of Tory members who like Anderson more than they like him. But Sunak refuses to explain what it is about Anderson’s words that was unacceptable and wrong.

This is a problem because, while the prime minister knows what was unacceptable and wrong about them – he did, after all, suspend Anderson fairly swiftly – there are plenty of Conservatives who don’t. Anderson, for instance, seems baffled by the whole thing. As each fresh minister appears before an interviewer and refuses to explain why describing a Muslim politician as operating under the control of extremists is problematic, the listener is left wondering whether they don’t actually know.

Meanwhile Tories who only want to hurt the prime minister exploit the ambiguity. Anderson is reportedly feted by Brendan Clarke-Smith, hugged by Liz Truss. Is this also unacceptable and wrong? Who can say?

The most charitable explanation is that ministers do know what was wrong with Anderson’s words, but daren’t say. It’s reminiscent of the awkward scenes last year when a lot of the same people refused to say whether they thought it was a problem that Johnson had lied to Parliament. The only reason can be a fear of upsetting their own side. Presumably this time Sunak believes there are a lot of Tories who agree with Anderson.

By calling out hate speech in his own party, Sunak would begin to earn the right to talk about it when it comes from other people

But it’s a politician’s job to argue for their position. If Sunak believes Anderson’s words – the equivalent of saying that a Jewish politician was secretly controlled by Israel – were racist, that they carried an implication that Muslims don’t quite belong in Britain, he should say so clearly. Decent Conservatives would back him. Those currently exploiting the ambiguity of his position, including Anderson, would be forced to pick a side.

What is the prime minister afraid of? Might some of his MPs defect to Reform? Good. Make them say what they believe out loud. If Sunak is right when he says Britain isn’t a racist country, there are more votes in standing up to racism than in cowering before it.

By calling out hate speech in his own party, Sunak would begin to earn the right to talk about it when it comes from other people. His will-this-do statement in Downing Street on Friday evening complained about the election of George Galloway and the behaviour of people on Gaza protests, but offered few signs the prime minister has any idea how to confront these problems.

Here again it’s time for him to do his job. If Sunak wants the marchers to listen to him, he should say something to them. He hasn’t made a statement to Parliament specifically on Gaza since October. Large numbers of British people have reasonable concerns about what is happening there and what their government is doing about it. Sunak should set out what he wants to happen, what he is doing to bring that about, what is beyond his power, and why he won’t heed the calls to simply condemn Israel. If he thinks his course is the right one, he should argue for it. The same goes for Keir Starmer, who owes both us all a clear articulation of his approach.

It’s no use whining about the voters of Rochdale if you’ve made no effort to change their minds. And if you denounce Galloway for stoking division while refusing to engage with the problems in your own party, you shouldn’t be surprised no one listens.

Sunak is the leader both of his party and his country. He should try leading.

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