Rishi Sunak has decided it’s time to face down the Left’s culture warriors. ‘He’s going to do it in his own way,’ one of the PM’s allies explained to me. ‘You have to engage with sensitivity and consideration. It’s not just about banging on about people being too woke. But an issue such as grooming gangs is something he feels very strongly about. And he’s going to speak out on it.’
Some people don’t want him to.
Last Monday, the Prime Minister held a private meeting in Rochdale with survivors of sex-grooming gangs. He declared: ‘The reason the victims were ignored was due to cultural sensitivity and political correctness. That is not right.’
Sunak was immediately attacked for resorting to ‘dog whistle politics’. One leading liberal commentator accused him of playing into the hands of ‘pub racists’.
But Sunak ignored the criticism. ‘After speaking to the survivors, the PM was very moved and very angry,’ a friend of his told me, ‘and it’s left him even more determined to keep focused on this issue.’
There’s a growing feeling within government that Rishi Sunak is the perfect person to take on and beat the culture crusaders at their own game
He should. Over the past couple of months there has been a spirited debate inside No 10 over the extent to which Ministers need to join battle over culture-war issues.
Some of Sunak’s advisers believe their focus should remain exclusively on core promises – halving inflation, delivering growth, cutting debt and hospital waiting lists, and stopping cross-Channel migrants’ boats. Others feared it risked toxifying the Prime Minister’s personal brand if he became too strident on controversial issues such as trans rights and child abusers.
But there’s a growing feeling within government that Sunak is the perfect person to take on and beat the culture crusaders at their own game.
‘The good thing about Rishi is that everyone can see he’s not some rabble-rousing populist,’ one Cabinet Minister told me. ‘He can engage on issues like this in a measured way. When he speaks, people are going to listen.’
Another factor is a recognition among Tory strategists of the unmitigated mess Sir Keir Starmer is getting himself into as he blunders blindly through the cultural minefield sown by his progressive allies. Addressing the trans issue last weekend, Labour’s leader bizarrely proclaimed: ‘For 99.9 per cent of women, it is completely biological… and of course they haven’t got a penis.’
Twenty-four hours later, he went on the radio to lecture all those women concerned about men invading their changing rooms and other protected spaces.
‘I do sometimes just wonder why on earth we spend so much of our time discussing something which isn’t a feature of the dinner table or the kitchen table or the cafe table or the bar,’ he chided.
Sir Keir Starmer is too scared and too weak to adopt a stance that sets him against his liberal base
Of course the real reason Starmer wants to shut down this debate isn’t because he thinks it’s not relevant. It’s because it’s finally dawning on him that he’s managed to get himself the wrong side of it.
In the struggle between the trans lobby and women, Starmer is instinctively with the trans community. That’s why he came out unequivocally in 2021 with the pledge that Labour was ‘committed to updating the Gender Recognition Act to introduce self-declaration for trans people’ and condemned his own MP Rosie Duffield for having the temerity to point out only a woman can have a cervix. But Starmer has belatedly realised the women of Britain are not going to meekly allow a small minority of men to bully their way into their safe and reserved spaces. So, in classic fashion, he’s desperately scrabbling around to find a way of being all things to all people.
Which is creating a dangerous political vacuum. One Labour strategist recently warned the party would ‘lose the Election on day one’ if Starmer didn’t adopt a clear line on the issue.
A view that is echoed by Tory Ministers. Citing the new archetype Starmer’s own pollsters believe will shape the next Election, one observed: ‘If Stevenage Woman finds a guy with a beard and his tackle out in a public toilet, that’s not just going to be a book-club talking point. It’s going to be a vote-changer.’ But crude politics is not the primary reason Rishi Sunak needs to start responding to the Left’s culture warriors.
The British people are not the cultural Neanderthals many progressives hold them to be. They appreciate that, over time, cultural conventions change. Few of them hanker for a return to a ‘Mind Your Language’ era when casual racial prejudice and easy sexism were often the norm.
But what they do expect is that social change is implemented in a genuinely inclusive and respectful way. And most importantly, in a consistent way.
So they fully understand racism is a terrible scourge, and that institutional racists must be confronted within our national institutions. But they won’t then turn a blind eye if some British Pakistani men target white girls, and warped political sensitivities allow such criminals to commit their crimes with impunity. Most voters will embrace calls to confront those who are violent to women. But they’ll not then be told they must take at face value a rapist’s claim he’s a woman, and thus should be granted access to a woman’s prison.
If their government introduces a new law that makes a man wolf-whistling at a woman punishable by two years’ imprisonment, they will accept it. But not if they’re told a man donning a G-string and cavorting in front of a six-year-old is something they should applaud.
As for those Starmer strategists who fear his failure to defend women’s rights with clarity may cost him power, I think they are wrong. Yes, it will almost certainly lose him votes. But ultimately the next General Election will be settled on the conventional battleground of the economy, health and law and order.
But that’s not the point. If we want a country that genuinely is socially harmonious, the fight over cultural norms cannot be allowed to become a private war between militias of the hard-Left and hard-Right. Mainstream politicians have to have the courage to step up, and speak on behalf of the tolerant and sensible majority.
It’s abundantly clear their tribune will not be Sir Keir Starmer. He is too scared and too weak to adopt a stance that sets him against his liberal base.
Which leaves Rishi Sunak the only person left to fill the void. Unlike his recent predecessors – and one or two high-profile members of his Cabinet – he has the temperament and judgment to engage with these complex issues with balance and tact.
He has also been handed an opening by Labour’s shameful recent attack advert, which falsely blamed him for the lenient sentences handed down to sex offenders. With the result that any synthetic accusations of playing ‘gutter politics’ will be exposed as nothing more than a hypocritical attempt at deflection.
This will not be a fight of Rishi Sunak’s choosing. He is no culture warrior, but a technocrat who prefers careful contemplation of an Excel spreadsheet, rather than bold, populist gestures.
But it’s a fight that still needs fighting. And when Rishi Sunak goes into battle, he will find a majority of the British people have his back.
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