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Extremists trying to tear us apart, says Rishi Sunak in impromptu No 10 speech

Rishi Sunak has claimed extremist groups in the UK are “trying to tear us apart”, in a hastily arranged Downing Street statement that came hours after George Galloway won a byelection in Rochdale.

Standing outside No 10 late on Friday, the prime minister condemned what he called “a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” after the 7 October massacre by Hamas and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

He also claimed democracy itself was a target, as he condemned the election of Galloway, who easily won the seat in Rochdale on a platform that focused on anti-Israel sentiment over Gaza.

However, in a sometimes rambling and seemingly contradictory 10-minute address, Sunak made points likely to anger MPs on the right of the Conservative party such as Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, who have sought to frame recent tensions as almost entirely the responsibility of Islamist extremists.

Sunak was at pains to stress the recent abuse of Muslim Britons as well as the Jewish community, and to highlight the threat from far-right groups as well as Islamists.

“Don’t let the extremists hijack your marches,” he said, directly addressing those who had taken part in the series of huge protests across the UK.

“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.”

But the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, responded: “The British people will take no lessons from a prime minister and Conservative party who have sowed the seeds of division for years.”

Sunak added: “Yes, you can march and protest with passion, you can demand the protection of civilian life. But no, you cannot call for violent jihad.”

But he failed to address stinging criticism of MPs in his own party, or his own failure to call out their remarks.

He spoke less than a week after Lee Anderson, the former Conservative party deputy chair, had the whip withdrawn following remarks about the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that were widely condemned as offensive and Islamophobic.

Braverman and Liz Truss have also been criticised and accused of deliberately stoking divisions.

In parts of Sunak’s impromptu speech, which was announced with minimal notice, he painted a picture of political bedlam which some opponents argue is overstated.

“In recent weeks and months, we’ve seen a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality. What started as protests on our streets has descended into intimidation, threats and planned acts of violence,” he said.

“I need to speak to you all this evening because this situation has gone on long enough and demands a response not just from government, but from all of us.”

There were, he said, “forces here at home trying to tear us apart” by taking advantage of the “very human angst that we all feel about the terrible suffering that war brings to the innocent, to women and children, to advance a divisive, hateful ideological agenda”.

The address contained no new policies, beyond a vague commitment for a “robust framework” for government to tackle extremism at its roots.

But Sunak did urge police to make greater use of existing powers to tackle things such as protesters disrupting political meetings or projecting images on to parliament.

He said: “This week, I’ve met with senior police officers and made clear it is the public’s expectation that they will not merely manage these protests, but police them. I say this to the police: we will back you when you take action.”

It was after the meeting with police on Wednesday that Sunak said there was “a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule”, an assessment civil liberties groups and others said was concerning and a potential harbinger of even tougher anti-protest laws.

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, appeared to back the prime minister’s message calling for unity in the country.

He said: “The prime minister is right to advocate unity and to condemn the unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour that we have seen recently.

“It is an important task of leadership to defend our values and the common bonds that hold us together.

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“Citizens have a right to go about their business without intimidation and elected representatives should be able to do their jobs and cast their votes without fear or favour.

“This is something agreed across the parties and which we should all defend.”

Davey said: “This is the same prime minister who made Suella Braverman his home secretary and Lee Anderson his party’s deputy chairman.

“If the prime minister is serious about bringing people together, he would call a general election now so that the British public can decide the future of our country.”

Galloway said he did not understand Sunak’s suggestions that he glorified Hezbollah but hoped they could discuss it next week if the prime minister “has the guts”.

Sunak said the newly elected MP for Rochdale “dismisses the horror of what happened on October 7”, “glorifies Hezbollah” and is “endorsed by Nick Griffin, the racist former leader of the BNP”.

“I’m not responsible for whoever declares they endorse me … I’ve never met Mr Griffin and have no intention to,” Galloway told Channel 5 News.

“I don’t know what the glorifying of Hezbollah is all about but maybe he can tell me on Wednesday at prime minister’s questions if he’s got the guts.”