“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 Suella Braverman in her resignation letter in October 2022 after 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 Rishi Sunak installed at 10 Downing Street than things magically came right for Mrs Braverman and she was back in the home secretary’s office.
Now Mrs Braverman has gone again, after a strategy which appeared to be one of deliberately goading the prime minister into sacking her. Her continuing presence as her comments have became increasingly inflammatory made Sunak look desperately weak – “in office, but not in power”, as Normal Lamont once said. Even though colleagues in her own party deemed her to be making the sort of mistakes which, little over a year ago, she thought should require resignation, Mrs Braverman contined in office.
In the wake of the dismal King’s Speech, Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, declared of Rishi Sunak that “without a serious home secretary, there can be no serious government and he cannot be a serious prime minister.” Yet Sunak chose to demonstrate his support for his rogue home secretary by sitting next to her in the debate.
His determination until now to stick with Mrs Braverman gave 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 serves 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 is 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.
It seemed that she might have successfully pushed him to the limit when she chose to publish her dangerous criticisms of the police in an OpEd in The Times without having full approval from Number Ten but, while the speculation had her being dismissed, in the immediate aftermath of publication, she remained stubbornly in office.
Despite penning an article that no home secretary should ever have contemplated writing, and then bypassing the decreed route for receiving Number 10’s approval before publication, her actions met with no immediate retribution. 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 are 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 withstood the immediate pressure to show her the door. He knows that she has devoted fans both in the grassroots membership of the party but also within the parliamentary party. Indeed, Lee Anderson, the pugilistic deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, 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 has been nervous of “cancelling” her as he has 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 ousting 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, which would explain why Mrs Braverman appears to believe herself immune to the normal rules that govern the responsibilities of Cabinet ministers.
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 seems 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 head to 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 Nigel 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. Should far-right activists and those in search of a fight have turned out on the streets and the turmoil she predicted result, she will have encouraged them but will instead claim to have been vindicated. And if the violence was kept in check, then it would be because her stance persuaded the police to take a tougher line.
Her next test comes this week, when the Supreme Court rules on the Rwanda deportation scheme. She has said that it is 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.
That call would be resoundingly endorsed by the Daily Mail but, so far, Sunak has merely called for the reform of the ECHR. On the basis of his tolerance of Mrs Braverman’s rants so far, it seems likely that he will simply be content for her to go on doing his dirty work.