What do you do, as a prime minister, when one of your cabinet ministers goes rogue? What happens if a senior colleague — and a potential future leadership challenger with a strong party following at that — appears to spurn their responsibility to act as a cabinet collective with an article unsubtly critiquing the government’s stated position?
Well, that’s the position Gordon Brown found himself in in 2008, when foreign secretary David Miliband penned an article for the Guardian, suggesting a “radical new phase” of government is needed. The article came as discussions rumbled on in some quarters of the parliamentary Labour Party about whether to dislodge Brown from No 10. Miliband, naturally, was touted as a potential successor.
Now, the situation Rishi Sunak found himself in with Suella Braverman’s Times article is, of course, not entirely analogous; the home secretary was accused of stoking tension ahead of a day of protests and, even, of inspiring antipathy against police — whom she represents in government. (The article, moreover, was not signed off by No 10; although one wonders whether Miliband’s 2008 treatise was).
But compare and contrast the response. In a scenario like that presented to Sunak by Braverman — nothing less than an intra-party crisis as siren calls to “back” or “sack” her competed in the media and across WhatsApp groups — a prime minister either seizes on, or shirks, the moment. In his reshuffle yesterday, Sunak consciously wanted to be seen as exacting and authoritative — stamping his mark on the Conservative party in a way he has not yet done. In theory, this was the prime minister turning a crisis into an opportunity — as a good leader should.
There are, of course, drawbacks to the path taken. Exuding power and authoritativeness is one thing; but, as Liz Truss discovered, vaulting allies at the direct expense of opponents can create myriad party-management problems. The PM, like his failed forebear, may be willing his power into existence — but fiddling with the levers of his office might simply serve to mask a painful truth: his authority in the Conservative Party is ailing.
In this way, sacking a Suella Braverman or a David Miliband remains risky, both in the short- and long-term. One reading suggests Sunak has given his ex-home secretary exactly what she wants: he has conferred upon her her desired martyr status, and offered her a route out of government before her leadership prospects go the way of Priti Patel’s circa 2022.
What is more, Braverman seems to have the perfect opportunity to write her own hagiography — as a foiled, not failed, home secretary — with her response to the Rwanda plan supreme court ruling tomorrow.
If the court blocks the government’s flagship deportation scheme, Braverman could follow the lead of her party-right backers — figures in the Common Sense and New Conservatives caucuses — and call on the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The move would pave the way for a series of stinging commons contributions all the way up to the general election and, more pertinently, a potential post-Sunak Conservative leadership contest. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph would surely fall in behind and a new phase of Conservative infighting would follow. How could Sunak maintain the visage of unity under those circumstances? Lord Cameron’s loyal diplomacy will be politically meaningless against this backdrop.
And lo, Braverman’s narrative — to be repeated by her devout supporters — will flow: as home secretary, I exercised crucial soft power on “small boats”, slowly, and in the face of much resistance, working my colleagues to the right on illegal migration. Viewed in full, the unhappy but at times productive alliance between myself and my betrayers yielded significant movement for our favoured cause. In fact, my Illegal Migration Act means that arrivals on “small boats” will be detained within the first 28 days without bail or judicial review. My Act places a legal duty on the government to deport almost anyone who arrives “irregularly” in the UK. On top of this, during the Act’s committee stage, I ensured the Conservative Party right was appeased by acquiescing to an amendment on ignoring ECHR interim injunctions.
Then the narrative will pivot to the future: in the wake of my sacking and the maligned moderating Rishuffle, it is time to escalate the Conservative Party’s attacks on the ECHR. Having been the champion of “stopping the boats” in government, I will now lead on the backbenches.
How this spiel figures in reality is not really the point (Robert Jenrick was the real face of the Illegal Migration Act) — rather, it is intended to corral and rally the Conservative right. But there is a problem, because Braverman is now a mere backbencher without the trappings of high office. In time, the ex-home secretary may discover that she’s a rather more isolated figure in the Conservative Party than she has hitherto calculated.
Sky News’ John Craig reports that when the New Conservatives met to discuss the reshuffle on Monday evening, there were only 20 MPs present — 12 in the room and 8 on Zoom. It is hardly an amassing battalion of committed culture warriors. And, according to a pre-reshuffle report in the Times, Downing Street and the whips’ office have estimated Braverman’s core supporters at between six and a dozen, including Lee Anderson and Miriam Cates.
On top of this, it is reported that a drinks reception held by members of the Common Sense Group, chaired by Sir John Hayes and which backs Braverman, earlier this month was attended by only seven MPs.
It points to a conclusion I have forwarded repeatedly over the past week: Braverman needed her cabinet role. It was telling that in the hours before her sacking, Braverman’s core clique of supporters led by prime patron Sir John were reported by the Telegraph to be penning a letter to the prime minister insisting he sticks by her. Hayes told the paper that Braverman and Sunak must “collaborate” on small boats.
Of course, Braverman does retain power on the backbenches — if only on account of her outspoken supporters. But, in recent days, the majority of the Conservative Party has appeared to move against her with incessant critical briefings to journalists. Against this backdrop, can we be surprised that Sunak appears to have embraced his party’s moderate wing? The party right has decided, incongruously, that Sunak is not one of them; why would the PM seek to woo the unwooable, individuals like Dame Andrea Jenkyns who long ago decided Sunak was an antagonistic pretender?
On top of this, the right-wing cause is not merely Braverman’s to monopolise. The appointment of Esther McVey as a de facto minister for “common sense” is a classic sop to the Sunak’s sceptics and arguably shows the government will be embracing culture war tropes in earnest.
So saintly martyr Suella Braverman may have a “cause” per se — but it is, (1), not widely popular in her party and, (2), not just the reserve of her own core backbench clique. Thus, after a long period in government which has resulted in two unbecoming government exits, now will be the true test of the home secretary’s political skill. Withholding a resignation letter until it is at its most politically potent is one thing — but can she find a path forward?
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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