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‘We must face down the extremists’: Rishi Sunak warns of attacks on democracy

PM said the victory of George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election was ‘beyond alarming’

Kate Devlin
Politics and Whitehall Editor
Friday 01 March 2024 20:36 GMT
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Sunak supports tougher action on extremists by police and home office

Rishi Sunak has called for the country to come together to beat the “poison” of extremists targeting democracy, in a hastily arranged press conference in Downing Street.

In an extraordinary address to the public, he warned there were forces “at home trying to tear us apart’’ adding ‘we must face (them) down”.

Just hours after the victory of George Galloway in the Rochdale by-election, the prime minister branded his win "beyond alarming".

There had been a “shocking increase” in extremist disruption and criminality in recent months, in the wake of the war in Gaza, he said, as he announced a crackdown.

"What started as protests on our streets have descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence,” he said. "Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveals their identity. Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with. Now our democracy itself is a target.”

He cited council meetings and local events which have been targeted, said MPs do not feel safe in their own homes and long-standing parliamentary conventions had been “upended” because of safety concerns.

"And it's beyond alarming that last night, the Rochdale by-election returned a candidate that dismisses the horror of what happened on October 7, who glorifies Hezbollah and is endorsed by Nick Griffin, the racist former leader of the BNP."

Mr Sunak annouced ministers would redouble support for the anti-terrorism Prevent programme, demand universities stop extremist activity on campus and prevent people entering the UK whose “aim is to undermine its values”.

Home secretary James Cleverly has also been told that those in the UK on visas who choose to “spew hate” will have their right to be in the country removed.

In a message directed at those taking part in pro-Palestine protests, he urged people to reject extremism.

He said: “I want to speak directly to those who choose to continue to protest: don’t let the extremists hijack your marches.

“You have a chance in the coming weeks to show that you can protest decently, peacefully and with empathy for your fellow citizens.

“Let us prove these extremists wrong and show them that even when we disagree, we will never be disunited.”

More demonstrations are planned for this weekend before another national march takes place in central London on March 9.

Keir Starmer backed Mr Sunak’s intervention, saying: “The Prime Minister is right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently.”

But Conservative peer Lord Vaizey said “many in the Tory party should look to themselves” when it comes to the toxification of public life.

And the Liberal Democrats said the British people would ‘take no lessons from a Conservative party who have sowed the seeds of division’ over issues including plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Mr Sunak’s comments came just hours after Mr Galloway’s victory in the chaotic by-election was branded a “dark day for Jewish community”.

Earlier this week the prime minister claimed the UK was descending into “mob rule” as he warned police must take urgent action or risk losing public confidence.

The prime minister demanded a crackdown on protests as he said he would do “whatever it requires to protect our democracy”.

And he told police chiefs during a meeting in Downing Street that they had to demonstrate they would “use the powers you already have”.

Tensions have been heightened by protests over the war in Gaza, as MPs face intense pressure to back calls for a ceasefire.

Mr Sunak has previously condemned an “aggressive mob” of pro-Palestinian protesters at the home of Tory MP Tobias Ellwood.

There were also angry and chaotic scenes at Westminster last week after the Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle was accused of ripping up the parliamentary rule book over a ceasefire vote, because of concerns over what he said were “frightening” threats against MPs.

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