Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: The false dawn of ‘real Rishi’

It will be considered the most consequential week of Rishi Sunak’s premiership: a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle which ditched Suella Braverman and vaulted David Cameron, and a reckoning for — followed by a restatement of intent on — the government’s flagship Rwanda deportation plan. 

Not long ago, it was the Conservative Party’s annual conference that was trailed as the chrysalis chamber from which the prime minister would emerge politically energised and election-ready; subsequently, the King’s Speech, the epitome of incumbency advantage in our system, was sold along the same lines. But both set-pieces were judged to have been scuppered for one reason or another — and neither event so changed the dynamics of British politics than those of the past seven days.

On this, Sunak’s most significant statement of intent came first: the elevation of David Cameron — now Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton — to the post of foreign secretary. Although the PM later insisted Cameron hosted one of “the most successful G8 summits of recent times”, it is clear he did not elevate his predecessor-but-three purely on account of his experience. (On Brexit, China and Greensill, the former PM’s worldliness could easily be reframed as baggage).

Rather, this decision was interpreted as Sunak throwing in with his moderate faction and finally embracing the vast collective of one nation MPs who backed him in consecutive leadership contests last year. Prime ministers typically seek to define themselves in opposition to a failed forebear: Theresa May eyed “burning injustices” Cameron was implied to have ignored; Boris Johnson would succeed on Brexit where May failed; Liz Truss pledged to unchain Britannia still-bonded by consecutive Conservative administrations; and Rishi Sunak, well, he rubbished 30 years of failed consensus at Conservative Party conference last month. (Cameron repaid the reproval by calling Sunak’s decision to scrap HS2’s second leg “wrong”).

By embracing Cameron, therefore, Sunak appeared to be doing a few things: (1) ending his ephemeral association with his 30-year consensus/“change” strategy; and, (2), at last, gambling on an ideological programme — vaulting an old liberal Tory bastion alongside some of his political disciples at the expense of the Conservative right. (Laura Trott, once a political adviser in Cameron’s No 10 policy unit, is now chief secretary to the Treasury. Liberal-leaning Victoria Atkins is health secretary; and Jeremy Hunt, once considered the “last Cameroon”, remains in post).

Thus, after months of feverish speculation that a political relaunch would give way to the rise of “real Rishi”, the Rishuffle signalled a genuine new departure in Sunak’s mode of governance. After a year in which doughty professionalism was prioritised at the expense of doctrinaire politics, this was Sunak rediscovering himself. The deliberately cautious, details-obsessed technocrat was being spun anew as a true political being. The mystery about what motivates Sunak seemed no longer moot: the “real Rishi”, it turned out, was in fact “Cameron 2.0”. The days of the PM pandering to populists, with no obvious electoral benefit, was over.

“Real Rishi”, of course, is a rhetorically powerful but substantively meaningless concept. For some months now it has been conjured by aides and allies of the PM at once as an excuse for poor performance and a promise of better to come. A politician intent on honing a political pitch is less likely to look inwards to rediscover hitherto buried principle — but outwards, repositioning as focus groups, party-politics and events demand. 

Still, the rationale behind the relaunch was plain, and to explain the strategy one needed only look at the Conservatives’ electoral predicament. For this appeared to be the PM reinforcing his “blue wall” party heartlands, ransacked as they have been in recent by-elections. With Cameron onside, seats subject to heightened Lib Dem-Conservative competition (the winning of which was crucial to Cameron’s 2015 majority) are reassured. Cameron’s elevation was hence a signal to the Somerton and Fromes of the UK’s electoral geography. 

What is more, amid perennial criticism from his party right that he is too managerial, too nice and not political enough, Sunak seemed to be embracing the support of his rather more easily satiable colleagues. The party right decided some time ago that Sunak is not one of them; so why would the PM undertake to continue to woo the intractable — individuals like Dame Andrea Jenkyns, and to a slightly lesser extent Sir Simon Clarke and Danny Kruger, who have long-decried Sunak as an antagonistic pretender? 

The PM, therefore, was both willing his power into existence — consciously wanting to be seen as authoritative as he shifted the levers of his office — and moderating his mode of governance, by apportioning ministries among a constellation of Cameroon movers and shakers. 

There were, of course, some conciliatory sops for Sunak’s sceptics. But years before Sunak appointed Esther McVey to his cabinet as “minister for common sense” or “tsar for wokedom”, Cameron blazed the trail. “Real Rishi” really did seem to be embracing his new status as a Brexity Dave.

This, therefore, was the political context into which the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Rwanda deportation policy was received on Wednesday; the Conservative right had been newly dispossessed of high office, but nonetheless invigorated with a betrayal narrative courtesy of Suella Braverman’s sacking. 

On Monday, the New Conservatives argued that Sunak was “walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power with a large majority in 2019”. On Tuesday, Braverman got ahead of the court ruling by accusing Sunak of having no “Plan B”. By Wednesday, plainly, party right bastions were limbering up for a factional throw-down, with the PM identified — more clearly than ever — as an antagonist. 

In the end, Lord Reed had barely exited the Supreme Court chamber before intra-party hostilities commenced. 

Lee Anderson soon urged the prime minister to “Put the planes in the air. Ignore the laws and send them straight back”. Simon Clarke called the whole affair a “confidence issue”. The New Conservatives, established now as the most influential party right faction, called for Sunak to “introduce legislation to insist that… the principle of the Rwanda policy is legitimate and shall have immediate effect”. How would — how could — Sunak respond, having signalled on Monday a more moderate tilt? He had seemingly boxed himself into a Cameroon corner. 

Indeed, rather than let his intra-party opponents’ discontent harden his intent (Starmer-style), his reaction was twofold: first, he revealed he would pursue a revised treaty with Rwanda, to replace the current Memorandum of Understanding and address the concerns identified by the Supreme Court. And, second, he would pass emergency legislation to decree to the courts that Rwanda is “safe” for all relevant purposes.

Legal innovation aside, such a response is ideologically and politically striking. Because the prime minister’s language about “not [allowing] any foreign court, like the European Court of Human Rights, to block these flights” suggests he is now, once more, throwing in with his party right critics. The populistic pandering continues, it seems, in earnest. 

Like the reshuffle, this was PM attempting to turn a crisis into an opportunity. At a moment when he might be considered exposed, he was seizing events by adopting a trenchant, unsparing line: once more willing his power into existence. 

But this ostensible strategic consistency is belied by the fact that both initiatives pull in diametrically opposed directions — politically, ideologically and electoral geographically. Reductively, Cameron’s appointment faces the “blue wall” and those liberal-leaning MPs in the Conservative parliamentary party, and the Rwanda response at the “red wall” and the Leave-minded, right-wing of his party. That’s the problem: there is no overriding narrative when viewed in full. “Real Rishi” — defined deliberately on such clear lines on Monday — softens to the point of indistinction. 

It begs a few questions: was David Cameron a mere dead cat tossed into the press gallery on Wednesday, thereby ensuring he could remove Suella Braverman without a day of headlines about Conservative division? Did the prime minister underestimate the scale of the reaction to the Rishuffle, and the bitter antipathy of Braverman, and therefore work to overcompensate post-Rwanda ruling? Does the reshuffle, after all, mean anything for the long-term political direction of the government?

In the same week, therefore, Sunak both defied his right flank and then worked to appease it. The failure to cohere a vision, supported both by policy and personnel (a clear strategic strength of Starmerism, for example), is making Sunak seem isolated in his own party and, even politically incoherent.

Ultimately, we have long-been promised the “real Rishi” after a reset period — and this week was begun by a genuine and unmistakable attempt by Sunak to remould his government. But it soon proved a false dawn, exposed by an unsparing Rwanda ruling response.

After having expended so much political capital on a controversial reshuffle, who does No 10 want us to think the “real Rishi” is? That seems no clearer. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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Photo by No 10 flickr.