Some people say that whether or not Rishi Sunak stops the small boats crossing the Channel could decide the outcome of the General Election.
They may be right. I’d only observe that the Government is going to have its work cut out putting a stop to migrants entering the country illegally. Rishi could fail, or only partially succeed.
There is another issue about which people also feel strongly, and which the Prime Minister should seize and make his own. I am speaking of the anti-social fruitcakes who cause chaos in the lives of ordinary people.
In the past week, animal rights activists have attempted to ruin the Grand National at Aintree, while mindless Just Stop Oil supporter Edred Whittingham disrupted the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield by climbing on to a snooker table and covering it in orange powder.
We can be certain there will be many more selfish acts of vandalism over the coming months. Bringing the M25 to a halt is no longer good enough for activists. There are fears they may try to wreck the London Marathon on Sunday.
If Rishi Sunak can prove he’s on the side of the people against the eco-yobs, it could help swing the election
Just Stop Oil supporter Edred Whittingham disrupts the World Snooker Championship on Monday
There are worries that Just Stop Oil zealots could eye Wimbledon and this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals. The Coronation on May 6 is also an obvious target.
Two things in particular strike me about these protesters. One is that they exist in an introverted social media loop, cut off from the lives and concerns of ordinary people. They often have privileged backgrounds.
The second thing is that these pathologically self-centred militants don’t usually single out the rich and powerful, but instead inconvenience the person in the street.
If they were to concentrate their ire on pin-striped nabobs strolling into their London clubs, the man and woman down at the Dog and Duck might not be too upset. As it is, the denizens of the Dog and Duck are right in the firing line.
The Grand National is far from being an elitist event. Nor is the World Snooker Championship exclusive. The hard-pressed plumber or nurse is as likely to be impeded on the M25 as the fat cat perusing the Financial Times in the back of a limousine.
The broad-based composition of the victims of eco-warriors creates a heaven-sent opportunity for a politician with a finger on the pulse. Put simply, the rights of the law-abiding, hard-working majority are being attacked by a lawless, unrepresentative minority. Is Rishi Sunak equal to the challenge?
Before Just Stop Oil targeted the snooker, animal rights activists attempted to ruin the Grand National at Aintree
There are worries that Just Stop Oil zealots could eye Wimbledon and this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley
His response to what happened in Aintree and Sheffield was encouraging. The PM told The Sun newspaper: ‘People who disrupt decent, law-abiding people’s lives, trying to gratuitously ruin great sporting events that many have worked hard and saved to enjoy, should be ashamed of their selfish behaviour.’
Quite right. All the same, it can hardly be said that the Government has so far taken a tough line against the anti-democratic extremists who would like to bring this country to its knees.
What is needed, it seems to me, is for the Prime Minister to put himself at the head of a crusade. He should make a keynote speech in which he affirms the right to protest peacefully while attacking the behaviour of a small — though perniciously effective –— number of troublemakers.
Instead of limiting his dismay to outrages by activists who have gone too far, Mr Sunak should make the argument that civil society can only function if we accept differences of opinion without resorting to guerrilla tactics.
Just how our society has produced this caste of bigoted, hysterical militants with zero sympathy for their fellow citizens is a fascinating question. Such people have always existed, but social media has somehow empowered them.
The Prime Minister’s response to what happened in Aintree and Sheffield was encouraging
Of course, many are reasonably concerned by climate change and animal rights. But Mr Sunak should make it clear that the strength and sincerity of our beliefs doesn’t give us the right to sabotage the lives of others.
So we need a moral defence of tolerance — a Prime Minister who is brave enough to stand up to the militant vandals and can identify with the frustrations of people who want to be allowed to live their lives.
And of course we also need tougher laws, and police prepared to enforce them. The Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which was passed last year, raised the maximum penalty for ‘wilful obstruction of the highway’ to 51 weeks in jail.
The Public Order Act, which is in its final stages in Parliament, will create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. A court will be able to impose a civil order restraining repeat offenders, who may previously have received little or no punishment.
Edred Whittingham, the student who interrupted the World Snooker Championship, is a typical example. Last year, this half-witted scion of a privileged family glued his hand to the frame of a painting by Turner, joined the blockade of an oil terminal and tried to bring the M25 to a standstill. He crowdfunds online to get others to bankroll his protests.
Whether the new powers will be used by judges and the police, who have sometimes proved timorous in the past, remains to be seen. The Government must do everything in its power to ensure the law is upheld.
My guess is that, although many people are concerned by climate change or the ill-treatment of animals, only a tiny minority approve of disruptive tactics. A robust and voluble Rishi Sunak — the version for which I yearn — would have public opinion on his side.
Edred Whittingham, the student who interrupted the World Snooker Championship, crowdfunds online to get others to bankroll his protests
And mightn’t this give the Tories a much needed electoral boost — especially as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is, as on so many issues that cause heartache over the progressive dinner tables of North London, unwilling to put his head above the parapet?
A man who has had such difficulty in deciding whether or not women can have penises is unlikely to have very forthright views about whether activists are justified in bringing the country to a halt.
Indeed, he has zigzagged. In May 2019, Sir Keir opined that Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience, which included blockading bridges, shutting down traffic in Oxford Circus and protests on the Tube and at airports, came with an ‘important message’.
By contrast, a year ago, after Just Stop Oil protesters had blockaded 11 fuel depots, Sir Keir had a rush of courage and tweeted: ‘Drivers are being hammered by rising petrol prices and now millions of motorists can’t access fuel. The Government must stop standing idly by and immediately impose injunctions.’
The Public Order Act, which is in its final stages in Parliament, will create Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. A court will be able to impose a civil order restraining repeat offenders, who may previously have received little or no punishment. Pictured: JSO block Kinsgsbury Oil Terminal near Birmingham on September 14, 2022
Whatever anti-social protests may lie ahead, I should be surprised if the cautious and calculating Sir Keir were to come out unequivocally against them. He is apt to criticise the Government without nailing his own colours to the mast.
So this is a great opportunity for Rishi to make his mark. Is he, as I sometimes fear, naturally uncombative and cossetted — someone who has enjoyed a gilded and rarefied life at Winchester, Oxford and as an investment banker, and exists at one remove from the people he governs?
Or is he actually tougher and more gritty? Able to identify a political advantage and single-mindedly pursue it? The idiocies of selfish protesters will loom large during the coming months. Rishi Sunak must show that he is on the side of the people.