When Rishi Sunak appeared in my home town of Rochdale on Monday, he at first sounded every inch the technocrat.
As he unveiled a new crackdown on child sex grooming gangs, the bespectacled PM talked about the need to get “better analytics and data” to find out just how much of the problem was among Asian communities.
But with the next breath, Sunak pivoted to culture warrior mode, declaring that worries about “cultural sensitivity and political correctness” were to blame for some cases of abuse being allowed to go unpunished in the past.
He also pointed out that during the Tory leadership contest last summer he had made this issue a priority. He’s not wrong. At the time, he told GB News people were “scared of calling out the fact that there’s a particular group of people that are perpetuating these crimes”.
As Sunak was trailing badly behind Liz Truss at the time, many assumed that this was just another desperate attempt to woo the Conservative grassroots, along with his talk of cracking down on people who missed NHS appointments and benefit claimants.
While he was all for giving his party a message it didn’t want to hear about the disastrous idea of borrowing-fuelled tax cuts (something which proved prophetic once Truss beat him), he was not remotely afraid of telling it what it wanted to hear about “culture war” issues.
It was a reminder that while Sunak projects himself as a pragmatist problem solver, on some issues he “really is right wing”, as one close ally put it.
Of course, the whole issue of child protection shouldn’t be about right or left, it should be about right or wrong, about calm discussion of the big challenges and the best way to reform the system to help those at risk of a disgusting crime.
It’s clear that the PM wants to defuse racial tensions over the issue, but the danger is that he and his Government inflame those tensions instead – particularly as they seek to politicise the subject, deploy loose language and ignore some basic facts. His attempt to create a “wedge issue” to harm Labour may also harm race relations more generally.
By focusing on this whole subject in the middle of the local election campaign, Sunak certainly seems to think he can make political capital out of it. The official period of “purdah”, when taxpayer-funded announcements can’t be used to influence elections, starts in a fortnight but few are in doubt the grooming crackdown was about targeting voters.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who is always less measured and more strident than most of the Cabinet, undeniably gazumped her boss on the grooming rhetoric this weekend.
She told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “I didn’t want to get political – but some of these councillors, senior politicians in Labour-run areas, over a period of years, absolutely failed to take action because of cultural sensitivities.”
Braverman also used a newspaper article to claim that one of the “critical facts” about the grooming scandal was that “the perpetrators are groups of men, almost all British-Pakistani, who hold cultural attitudes completely incompatible with British values”.
Sunak, whose spokesman told us he wants this issue to be “evidence-based”, notably refused to repeat that wild and inaccurate claim. That was just as well, given a 2021 Home Office report found that a large majority of grooming gangs are made up of white men, not Asians.
It also didn’t help the Government’s case that the NSPCC – the children’s charity whose sole “PC” mission is the “Prevention of Cruelty” not “Political Correctness” – pointed out grooming gangs “do not just come from one background”.
Sabah Kaiser, the ethnic minority ambassador for the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, also told BBC Radio 4 it was “very, very dangerous for the Government to turn child sexual abuse into a matter of colour”.
Of course, one aspect of political culture wars is to try to provoke an extreme reaction from your opponents.
In making inflammatory and incorrect claims, Braverman may have been hoping that some in Labour walk into the trap by denying that a misplaced fear of mentioning race had led some social workers, councillors and police to properly tackle gangs in Rochdale, Rotherham, Telford and other places.
Yet Keir Starmer refused to bite. As Director of Public Prosecutions, he is on strong ground because he actually gave the green light for the prosecution of the Rochdale gang. The man who led that case, Nazir Afzal, has also said Pakistani communities need to confront the problem and do more to speak out and protect girls, both white and non-white.
But Afzal repeatedly stresses that just because ethnicity was a factor in some cases, it is not the factor. In some cases, the abusers were more likely to be Asian because Asians were more likely to be part of the “night time economy” of taxi drivers and others who came into contact with their victims
Afzal also rightly points to years of austerity cuts to council programmes that helped protect girls, as well as to the “broken” criminal justice system. Only 11 per cent of child sexual abuse cases now end with a charge, down from 32 per cent seven years ago.
There’s also the central fact that the white working class girls of Rochdale, Rotherham and other places suffered from the misogyny of some in power who assumed their marginalised lifestyles and sexual history meant they were not the “perfect victim” for successful prosecutions.
What dismays some moderate Conservative backbenchers is that their party is once again giving oxygen to far-right online memes, just as Boris Johnson did when he falsely accused Starmer of “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
Johnson plucked that smear from the murky depths of internet chatter and gave it prominence. After Braverman’s remarks, extremist narratives about “Muslim paedophiles” may similarly get airplay and the stamp of legitimacy.
Tackling the awful crime of grooming is just as multi-faceted and complex as tackling the problem of “small boat” Channel crossings of migrants. And just as Braverman’s language about the “invasion” of Britain helps no one, her language on grooming gangs could be just as irresponsible.
On both issues, the wider risk is that Sunak will never satisfy some of those he’s seeking to reassure. One Tory I know of Asian heritage had his head in his hands last summer when Sunak tried to joke about what sounded like a racist remark directed at him. At a Leeds leadership hustings, Sunak said: “The weather’s been fantastic so we’ve been in so many peoples gardens […] So much so, that someone said to me the other day, ‘wow you’ve got a great tan’.”
Some MPs felt that Sunak himself was a victim of a “bit of latent racism” from party members. “Someone told me, ‘I’m not ready for the brown one yet’ ,” they said. The whole issue of rank and file racism among the party membership is little discussed within the Tories, though few would recognise that’s a “cultural sensitivity” of their own.
It’s unclear too just how much of an issue racism will be at the next general election. Recently, one Labour staffer got chatting in the Red Lion pub on Whitehall with a daytripper from the West Midlands. The man said he had voted Tory in 2019 for the first time but never would again. He ended his remarks by saying “and anyway, I’m not voting for an Asian”. The Labour staffer said they made clear they were appalled and quickly ended the conversation.
Sunak may think he’s smart in raising the profile of race and migration issues. The risk is that the pub racists will see him as part of the problem, not part of the solution. More broadly, the only winner politically may be Nigel Farage’s Reform Party. And the real losers could be the victims of abuse.