©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Rishi Sunak has Suella Braverman right where he wants her

The Home Office under Rishi Sunak is a curious department. 

Nominally, it is led by Suella Braverman, who appeared to have the brief surrendered to her during the October 2022 Conservative leadership contest. While we are ignorant of the terms of such a “deal” between Sunak and his soon-to-be home secretary — and it has not been confirmed that any formal arrangement was ever pulled together — Braverman’s continued presence in government, after two ministerial code-related scandals, may well speak for itself. 

At a time of heightened political psychodrama, the much-purported “pact” was an act of relative elegance. With Conservative MPs fumbling for a replacement for Liz Truss, two former opponents agreed to put their differences aside in favour of mutually assured career development: it was the ultimate marriage of convenience. Whispers at the end of the Trussite interregnum suggested it would be a joined-up Sunak-Mordaunt plot that would topple the ailing PM. But commentators had not accounted for the continuing influence of Braverman, recently ushered out of the Home Office under the cloud of a scandal. Today we see it was Sunak and Braverman’s uneasy entente wot won it. 

For the junior partner of such a deal, the windfall tends to be the creation of a personal fiefdom in government, with the rising minister gaining near total control over policy levers in the desired department. One relevant example may be Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s “Granita pact”, negotiated in an Islington restaurant ahead of the 1994 Labour leadership election. The analogy is not perfect; Brown and Blair’s relationship was defined as much by their personality mix as by their politics, and the tentacles of the Treasury naturally spread far wider than those of the Home Office. But recent history tells us that a senior cabinet minister — having secured their post via an agreement — should be secondus inter pares in government, wilfully subverting collective responsibility and distorting the distribution of power within the British executive.

The home secretary’s freelancing at the National Conservatism Conference may show she is succeeding in the former domain. But on the latter: rather than craft a semi-autonomous institutional power base in government, Braverman doesn’t even appear to be the most powerful person in the Home Office. 

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister and key Sunak ally, has emerged in recent months as a crucial component of the PM’s political operation. He spent Sunday morning touring media studios for the government, trailing its six-month update on the PM’s “stop the boats” pledge. He told Sky News that “thousands” of illegal migrants were in the process of being returned to Albania; there was relatively little mention of the home secretary, his boss. 

Of course, the salience of the “small boats” issue right now — a consequence of the prime minister’s oath-swearing in January — has greatly raised Jenrick’s profile. In March, he notably and adeptly led the illegal migration bill at its commons committee stage as the legislation sailed through the House. In fact, since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, it has been Jenrick, not Braverman, who has been entrusted with the Home Office’s trickiest parliamentary assignments. (The home secretary’s commons contributions tend to have a rather more chaotic quality, a fact displayed yesterday as Braverman clashed with the Speaker and her opposite number Yvette Cooper).

Moreover, the immigration minister has not shied away from the discursive elements of the brief. Jenrick’s comments to a Policy Exchange event last month that migration threatened to “cannibalise” British compassion was an unsubtle confirmation that he would not operate, as had initially been assumed, as a moderating influence in the Home Office. The best way to quiet Braverman, so it seems, is simply to agree with her. 

Ultimately, Jenrick’s proximity to Braverman on both policy stances and rhetoric — coupled with his conspicuousness across the media and at the commons dispatch box — means he is no less than the de facto home secretary in Sunak’s government. 

Braverman’s personal fiefdom, the Home Office is not. 

Suella’s ‘soft power’?

One could say that in winning the “stop the boats” pledge for her department — one-fifth of PM’s pre-election offering — Braverman is exercising soft power in cabinet, slowly working her colleagues to the right on migration. And, in terms of policy, Sunak and Braverman’s political alliance appears to have yielded significant movement for the Conservative right’s favoured cause. The illegal migration bill, if passed, would see arrivals on “small boats” detained within the first 28 days without bail or judicial review. It would place a legal duty on the government to deport almost anyone who arrives “irregularly” in the UK. And it would introduce a cap on the number of refugees offered sanctuary through safe and legal routes.

But that the prime minister has marked himself out as an unapologetic “small boat”-stopping Conservative, even sharpening up the illegal migration on ECHR interventions at the commons committee stage, need not necessarily be credited to Braverman’s influence. Sunak’s tough talk, his tough rules, his bullishness, the desire to test the limits of international law and stare down the ECHR, must be viewed as much through the prism of electoral strategy than of party management. 

Small boats are central to Sunak’s political offering — with his highly presidential approach shaped on this area, as on others, by polling which shows he is far more popular than his party. So when the public was updated on the “small boats” situation yesterday, it was Sunak, freshly fitted with Timberland boots, stood at the helm. We have long passed the time when tough talk on migration was the exclusive privilege of a particular Conservative party clique. 

And then there’s the matter of the Home Office curse. The department is not what it once was as a platform for an ambitious minister and Braverman’s continued presence there may in time begin to erode her future leadership positioning. 

Through 2019-2022, then-home secretary Priti Patel was no less convinced on immigration policy than Braverman is now. But by the end of her tenure, the right-winger was much-derided by the Conservative grassroots. Patel discovered that the expectations raised by hardline rhetoric in the Home Office makes a perceived lack of delivery even more politically potent. ConservativeHome’s final cabinet “league table” of Boris Johnson’s premiership found Patel had a negative 13.4 per cent satisfaction among surveyed party members.

Gordon Brown once said that “There are only two types of chancellors; those that fail and those get out in time”. It is a saying which may be readily applied to the Home Office today. In the end, for a home secretary positioning for a future leadership run, small boats are much easier to talk about than to “stop” outright.

It means that on illegal immigration any forthcoming success will likely be attributed to the influence of the PM and his Timberland boots. But failure on Channel crossings, as the Priti Patel case study illustrates, may ultimately accost the ambitious home secretary. 

Rather than a model of dual governance, therefore, the Braverman-Sunak nexus has become a means by which the PM has furthered his party-political and policy goals. The losers in this equation, it would appear, are the home secretary and her leadership prospects.