It may be Rishi Sunak’s final gamble as prime minister, and it may have come too late. After a year spent trying to keep the opposing wings of his party under one roof, Rishi Sunak has at last decided to ditch the standard bearer of the far right and pull the Conservatives back towards the centre.
Suella Braverman, his rogue home secretary, effectively faced him with an ultimatum: either he joined her in appealing to the confrontational forces on the extreme right of his party, or he tried to rebuild the Tories’ appeal to middle England. Trying to straddle both had become impossible. Now we must wait to see what revenge Mrs Braverman attempts to extract on the man who returned her to the Home Office with catastrophic results.
Her comments about rough sleepers having made “a lifestyle choice” appalled too many Conservatives, both among the electorate and in the parliamentary party for even Sunak to ignore them. But with powerful voices raised in her support, Sunak did not take immediate action. Braverman responded by doubling down, attacking the police for a lack of independence and openly challenging the prime minister by ignoring the usual procedures for clearing articles. She had clearly decided that her ambitions were no longer being served by remaining in the government. Now she has got her wish, consigned to the back benches, from where she intends to reign as the queen across the water, the queen of the right. On Monday her supporters were already meeting in Westminister to plot her route to No. 10.
Mrs Braverman has been planning this for a long time. She is a calculating politician rather than a person of conviction in the Enoch Powell mode. Her decision on Sunday morning to condemn the pro-Palestine marchers whilst appearing to condone the far right rabble-rousers who descended on London intent on doing battle with the police could only have been a deliberate attempt to win favour with the likes of Tommy Robinson, and to further guarantee her departure from Cabinet.
She cannot, however, have calculated that Sunak might be prepared to hand her the right wing of the party quite as deliberately as it seems he has by appointing David Cameron as foreign secretary. Despite the responsibility he must bear for Britain leaving the EU, Cameron is still seen as the ultimate middle-of-the-road Tory. He arrived in office saying that he wanted to “heal broken Britain” and, while that aim was certainly not fulfilled, he is still perceived to have been a prime minister with a heart.
The appointment of the PM who introduced austerity demonstrates that Sunak is, effectively, giving up on the Red Wall seats and is making a last-ditch pitch to rebuild the Conservative Party in its heartland. The decision will not play well with all his MPs.
Mrs Braverman had her supporters, not least the pugilistic vice chairman of the party, Lee Anderson. Some of them may feel strongly enough about Braverman’s sacking to resign.
Sunak will be gambling, however, that most MPs will put up with an awful lot before sacrificing their place in parliament now. Their voters in the red wall seats, however, will probably throw them out come the next election.
Meanwhile, Mrs Braverman will be faced with the decision as to where she heads to build her new power base. Many of her supporters will be huge fans of celebrity jungle-bound Nigel Farage. Could they temporarily join forces, or is Mrs Braverman too ambitious to countenance even a temporary power-sharing arrangement?
Her time in government has always been turbulent. “Pretending we haven’t made mistakes, carrying on as if everyone can’t see that we have made them, and hoping that things will magically come right is not serious politics.” So said Braverman in her resignation letter in October 2022. Her breach of the ministerial code had been judged too serious for her even to retain a position in the disgraced Truss government.
Yet no sooner was Sunak installed at 10 Downing Street than things magically came right for Mrs Braverman and she was back in the home secretary’s office after a period of reflection that lasted a whole six days. Sunak at that stage was intent on leading a government of all the political persuasions, if not of all the talents.
But eventually, she pushed even this vacillating prime minister to decide that he could no longer countenance her vicious views within his Cabinet. Cruella Braverman had to go, even if it was the result she most desired. In the meantime, his apparent indecision did nothing to enhance his credibility.
In the wake of the dismal King’s Speech, Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, declared of Sunak that “without a serious home secretary, there can be no serious government and he cannot be a serious prime minister.” Yet, at that stage, Sunak chose to demonstrate his continuing support for his rogue home secretary by sitting next to her in the debate.
His determination to hang onto his controversy-courting minister provided glaring evidence of Sunak’s lack of seriousness about being the best possible leader for the UK at a time when the country faces a myriad of problems on every front; his focus has been entirely on his party and preserving his position in it so that, once the general election comes, he can bow out with the least ignominious defeat possible.
In a divided party, Mrs. Braverman served the purpose of appeasing the far right. Despite being a King’s Counsel, her language on the political stage is never lawyerly. Her incendiary rhetoric has been anything but accidental; it is entirely plotted and Sunak has been content to take advantage of it, refusing to distance himself from even her most offensive statements. Until she gave him no choice.
She then published an incendiary article in The Times without having approval from Number Ten but, while the speculation had her being dismissed, in the immediate aftermath of publication, she remained stubbornly in office. She had accused the police of having a left wing bias and likened pro-Palestinian marches, which she had previously described as “hate marches”, to those experienced in Northern Ireland.
On both counts, she was striding into arenas which should be strictly no-go for a home secretary. Undermining the impartiality of the police is to challenge their independence, a crucial concept in our democracy. Her words were guaranteed to make their job more difficult. And, when Northern Ireland is in such a fragile political position, to wade in with remarks which were inevitably seen as hostile to the Republicans, was equally crass.
Yet despite the furore the article occasioned, Sunak vacillated. He was loath to upset her devoted fans both in the grassroots membership of the party but also within the parliamentary party. Indeed, Anderson declared that “Suella is guilty. Guilty of saying what most of us are thinking and saying. Thank goodness we have a home secretary who refuses to be cancelled.”
Sunak was nervous of “cancelling” her as he judged it safer to have her in his Cabinet than on the backbenches, from where she would be able to make his life even more difficult.
It may well be that, as many suspect, having put herself up as a leadership candidate in the 2022 election that was eventually won by Liz Truss, who was memorably outlasted by a lettuce, Mrs Braverman is carefully positioning herself to be the next leader of the Conservative Party. She must realise that there is little point in attempting to oust Sunak now. Far preferable to let the incumbent face the almost inevitable defeat at the next election and then step forward. At 43, she can afford to take a relatively long-term view.
There are some who believe that she was taking that long-term view when she, eventually, gave her backing to Sunak to succeed Truss. Was there a version of the infamous ’Granita pact’ under which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown agreed that Blair would become the next leader of the Labour Party on condition that he promised to ensure that Brown would succeed him? It is a strong possibility that they came to such an arrangement, but, as Sunak has lost ground, both in the polls and in the party, she probably judged that she had nothing to gain by a continuing association with such a lacklustre government.
She is unashamedly pitching herself as the darling of the people who have now taken over many of the local Conservative associations, people who were formerly members of UKIP and are as far removed from the Cameroons as the fiercest Corbynites are from moderate members of the Labour Party. She has been caricatured as an arsonist, such is her inability to spot a fire without reaching for a can of petrol to throw over it. Sunak has seemed content to watch the blaze whilst being able to claim that he did not strike the match.
He refused to distance himself from her disparaging comments about homeless people and her call to stop charities from distributing tents to the unfortunates forced to sleep rough. Like so much, there was no commitment to this in the King’s Speech but the desired result had already been achieved: the right wing had had their prejudices fuelled by one of the highest-ranking Cabinet ministers.
No doubt her devotees will feel comfortable in sharing her judgement that their living conditions are a “lifestyle choice” rather than a government failing as the numbers of homeless people continue to grow, as they surely will this winter. The latest figures show that households unable to service their mortgages are growing. The Trussell Trust has already reported that, in the six months to September, demand for help from food banks was 16 per cent higher than a year earlier. Mrs. Braverman presumably believes that these customers prefer to visit a food bank than brave a supermarket.
In October, her speech to the Conservative Party conference went well beyond her ministerial brief and was easy to see as her laying out her stall for a future leadership bid. She repeated her attacks on the “pernicious nonsense” of political correctness and “wokery”. In Mrs. Braverman’s lexicon, to label the leader of the opposition as “Keir ‘take the knee’ Starmer” amounts to the ultimate in insults. She stoked concerns over immigration levels, acknowledging that her parents were immigrants but warning that the level of arrivals now being contemplated would reach “hurricane” proportions which would be “uncontrolled and unmanageable”.
She had a particular swipe at “luxury beliefs” of the wealthy, linking them with those who are “desperate to reverse Brexit”, saying that they had no use for a British passport “unless it is taking them to their second homes in Tuscany or the Dordogne”.
It is ironic that she is the beneficiary of two years studying in France under the Erasmus scheme and, laughably, a programme named “Entente Cordiale”. But no cliched image is too cheap for her to reach for if she believes it will appeal to her future voters.
Yet she may have over-estimated the potential numbers of votes to be had by pandering to the people who still see Farage as the best leader Britain never had. While her speech to the faithful in Manchester was rewarded with the inevitable standing ovation, her comments on homelessness have been largely denounced by people posting on the Conservative Home website.
Trying to pressurise the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, into demanding a ban on pro-Palestine marches over Remembrance weekend was equally ill-judged from a good governance point of view but, possibly, even more cynical. The far-right activists saw her comments as an invitation to rise up against the pro-Palestine marchers. “This is going to be tasty”, said one, gulping from a can of lager. These were not people determined to make a point of principle; they were looking for a fight.
The next test for Mrs Braverman as home secretary would have come this week, when the Supreme Court rules on the Rwanda deportation scheme. She had said that it was her “dream” and her “obsession” to see the first flight carrying asylum seekers time out of the UK to the Central Africa country.
If the court vetoes her dream, she will be calling for the UK to abandon the Human Rights Act, which she has already rechristened the “Criminal Rights Act”, and to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. Sunak has clearly decided it will be safer to have those calls coming from the back benches than from Cabinet.
It will be resoundingly endorsed by the Daily Mail but, so far, Sunak has merely called for the reform of the ECHR. His new home secretary James Cleverly told the Conservative conference last month that there was no reason to leave it.
Sunak will now have to decide whether, in the absence of Mrs Braverman to do his dirty work, he continues to try and appease the far right. Or whether he faces them down – and prepares to face the Conservatives’ own hurricane.