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Rishi Sunak has been accused of “talking down” Britain with “irresponsible” rhetoric after he claimed there was a “growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule” in the UK.

The prime minister triggered a backlash from opposition parties and campaigners in response to remarks made on Wednesday to police chiefs, when he outlined plans for a policing crackdown on protests at venues including parliament and the homes of MPs.

Moderate Conservative MPs also accused Sunak of going “over the top” in his analysis, which was seen by opponents as an attempt to court Tory rightwingers and fend off the anti-immigration Reform UK party.

One former cabinet minister said: “From where I’m speaking it’s really peaceful, no sign of mob rule here. And if it’s true, well, you’re the PM mate, what are you doing about it?”

Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow business secretary, signalled the remarks could harm the confidence of foreign investors. “Why the Tories are so intent on talking our country down is beyond me. This isn’t what’s needed to attract investment to Britain,” he said.

Although Duncan Edwards, chief executive of trade body BritishAmerican Business, whose members include Amazon, Microsoft and BP, said: “In the USA, this latest news has not really resonated. There are lots of protests here too.”

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, accused Sunak of “relying on desperate statements to win back his right-wing MPs” as he warned that such remarks were “counterproductive, irresponsible and do nothing to help ease community tensions”.

Civil liberties groups also expressed alarm at the prime minister’s comments. “Talk of ‘mob rule’ is extremely dangerous and detrimental to the rights of peaceful protest,” said Tom Southerden, law and human rights director at Amnesty International UK.

But some Conservatives defended Sunak, including Tobias Ellwood, whose home was surrounded by more than 60 protesters for three-and-a-half hours in February, prompting police to advise the MP and his family to stay away from the property.

“The boundaries of responsible public protest are being increasingly tested, impacting on MPs’ safety and how parliament debates,” said Ellwood, adding it was right to encourage a wider debate about how to safeguard democracy while honouring the right to demonstrate.

The disruption of council meetings, the targeting of MPs’ homes and the projection of slogans on to Big Ben were all cited by Downing Street as evidence of the alleged “growing consensus” that Britain was in the grip of mob rule.

But when asked to say who exactly was part of this “growing consensus”, Sunak’s spokesperson said he did not “want to name names”.

Number 10 denied that Sunak’s words were likely to undermine Britain’s standing in the world and as a venue for international investment. “I don’t think the UK is alone in seeing these kinds of demonstrations and behaviour on our streets,” the spokesperson said.

Sunak’s spokesperson refused to accept that Britain’s alleged descent into mob rule was down to a lack of political leadership and also refused to blame the police. “The police have done an excellent job and are working tirelessly,” he said.

On Thursday Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, issued a warning to extremists intent on intimidating MPs: “If you threaten members of this House, if you threaten democracy, if you threaten the British people, we will go after you, we will get you and you will be detained.”

He said that the government was looking at ways to extend safeguards during the election campaign, because once the Commons is dissolved, MPs become candidates and lose their parliamentary privileges.

Additional reporting by Michael O’Dwyer

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