UK’s Rishi Sunak warns against ‘poison’ of extremism in rare Downing Street speech

LONDON — Rishi Sunak used a hastily arranged address outside No.10 Downing Street Friday night to warn that British democracy faces “intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence” — and took a swipe at Britain’s newly elected pro-Palestinian MP George Galloway.

In a speech calling for more tolerance in politics after weeks of heightened tensions, Sunak said he feared that Britain’s “great achievement” — a multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy — was now being “deliberately undermined” by both Islamists and the far right.

And he took a potshot at Galloway, a controversial and stridently pro-Gaza veteran MP elected in the town of Rochdale Thursday after a bitter campaign. Sunak accused the former Labour lawmaker of dismissing “the horror” of the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel.

Sunak’s address comes after chaotic scenes in the British parliament in recent weeks, as well as the testy Rochdale by-election.

A House of Commons vote calling for a cease-fire in Gaza last month descended into chaos after Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ignored long-standing precedent, citing concern for MPs’ safety. Lawmakers have faced vocal protests about the war outside constituency offices, parliament and, in some cases, their homes. Some have faced death threats.

Sunak — who is battling to stay in office in the upcoming election amid dire polling for his governing Tories — warned that “long-standing parliamentary conventions have been up-ended because of safety concerns,” and warned there were now “forces here at home trying to tear us apart.”

“Islamist extremists and far-right groups are spreading a poison,” he said. “That poison is extremism. It aims to drain us of our confidence in ourselves as a people and in our shared future.”

‘Let us prove these extremists wrong’

Senior members of Sunak’s government have also hit out at Pro-Palestinian protesters in recent days, although Sunak himself has been accused of exaggerating the problem by some human rights groups after he warned of “mob rule” in the U.K.

The left-wing Momentum campaign group, which has been involved in some of the protests, charged Friday night that Sunak was “smearing peaceful protesters whose demand for an immediate cease-fire represents the mainstream of public opinion.” But the right-leaning Policy Exchange think tank called it a “striking intervention” which was “justified by events.”

Rounding out his speech at the Downing Street lectern — a rare move for a British prime minister often reserved for the triggering of elections — Sunak reeled off pre-announced measures his government is taking to reform the policing of protests, and issued a plea to those choosing to take to the streets.

“Don’t let the extremist hijack your marches,” he said. “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 from our common values of decency, and respect.”