It seems not even the regal opulence of a King’s Speech — the first delivered by a male monarch for more than 70 years — can stem the PM’s political travails. The “Speech from the Throne” was supposed to combat the perception that the Conservatives are tired and tailspinning into opposition. The event, subject as it was to wall-to-wall coverage in the media, is the epitome of incumbency advantage in British politics. But for Rishi Sunak, such set-pieces — like the Conservative Party‘s annual conference last month — serve merely to highlight his enduring political woes.
Indeed, it was telling that when the House returned at 2.30 pm on Tuesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer was rather less interested in the substance of the King’s Speech, than he was in prising open the gap between the prime minister and Suella Braverman. He succeeded.
With Starmer brandishing barb after barb, the frontbench pairing’s demeanour sharply diverged. Rishi Sunak tilted his head back and, in a moment of fleeting existentialism, darted his gaze to the commons ceiling. There was an attempt at a wry smile, but it faded; his head soon stilled after an abortive shake.
Braverman, conversely, remained stern, soaking in the spotlight as cries of “shame!” and “sack her!” crescendoed. “Without a serious home secretary there cannot be serious government and he cannot be a serious prime minister”, Starmer concluded. Sunak, optimistic by nature and political necessity, was visibly stung. (See the images laced throughout this article).
Here’s why: the preceding Saturday Suella Braverman had sent a tweet appearing to confirm a Financial Times scoop that a measure to curb charities handing out tents to rough sleepers was slated for the King’s Speech. The home secretary’s thread suggested that using tents is a “lifestyle choice” for some rough sleepers, many of whom come “from abroad”.
After all, the proposal did not appear in the King’s speech (maybe it was never going to, or perhaps Braverman had overly toxified the proposal with her rhetorical framing). Whatever the case, consecutive cabinet ministers — charged with manning what should have been triumphant media rounds — were forced to respond. Bar none, they refused to repeat Braverman’s remarks. And, at the despatch box on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak himself refused the opportunity to defend his home secretary from Starmer‘s slights.
But it gets worse for the prime minister — because the proposed tent crackdown is but one of a few firestorms Braverman seems intent on stoking right now.
Over the past few weeks, the home secretary has consistently called pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches”, going some distance further than the prime minister, whose condemnation is rather more coded. Nor does the home secretary show any intention of bridging the rhetorical chasm between her and her boss. In a Times article published last night, she doubled down, describing accusing the Metropolitan Police of a “double standard” in how it responds to protests by different groups. The demos by the “pro-Palestinian mobs”, she explained, amounted to “an assertion of primacy by certain groups — particularly Islamists — of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland”.
There’s more: last month, at Conservative Party conference in Manchester, she warned that a “hurricane” of migrants was heading for the UK. It followed a speech she gave in Washington DC only a few days prior, in which she lampooned the “misguided dogma” of multiculturalism; labelled the UN’s refugee convention “absurd”, arguing it conjures into existence 780 million refugees across the world; and, in a coup de grâce, insisted it is too easy for LGBTQ+ refugees to seek asylum.
These comments, of course, led to a whole host of senior Conservatives attempting to put distance between themselves and the home secretary. It mirrored, almost exactly, the fallout from Braverman’s frustrated tent crackdown
In fact, along these lines, the home secretary’s sabre-rattling interventions have acquired something of a cyclical feel.
By way of a summary: first, Braverman seizes on a specific area of her broad brief, usually a politically salient area as the news agenda decrees; she then identifies the government line; and, finally, consciously undertakes to step beyond it with some trailed policy proposal or statement.
What happens next is no longer up to her: a media firestorm ensues, cabinet ministers are called on to condemn it, Labour grandstand and collective responsibility is strained. Consequently, Sunak tries to down play the dissonance between his home secretary’s position and his own; but by then a narrative has long-taken hold. The prime minister is reduced to a mere spectator.
In this way, Braverman’s interventions are not concocted because they are viewed as substantive contributions to political discourse or policy-making. Her pitch to a small room of right-wing Washington wonks in September was never going to convince the rest of the world to ditch its obligations to the 1951 UN refugee convention. And Met police chief Sir Mark Rowley has said he does not have the legal right to ban the Pro-Palestine protest set for Saturday. But, for the home secretary and her supporters, the more their opponents howl, the more virtuous the quest becomes. The confected rage merely hardens the Conservative right’s collective resolve.
Did it really have to be this way?
It is important to note at this point that Braverman and Sunak’s relationship wasn’t always like this. Indeed, the home secretary has recently amped up her right-wing posturing, in a move that reflects her evolving assumptions about the government in which she serves — and how they relate to Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party’s future.
Of course, the policy area Braverman oversees with the most enduring political salience is illegal migration. On this, she has remained closely tied to the prime minister; in fact, Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” — supplemented by tough talk, new tough rules, and hard-headed bullishness — has arguably constrained the home secretary’s room for manoeuvre. Tellingly, Suella Braverman hardly featured in “small boats” week: no stunning intervention on the ECHR, no coded critique of her own government’s policy — near-total silence.
Compare and contrast this to the contributions of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, who navigated the Illegal Migration Act through its trickiest parliamentary stages and, during “small boats” week, helmed the most delicate media assignments. Nor has Jenrick, contrary to media preconceptions, shied away from the discursive elements of his brief. In April, he told a Policy Exchange event that migration threatened to “cannibalise” British compassion. It seemed Sunak (to whom Jenrick is fiercely loyal) had decided the best way to silence Braverman was to simply agree with her — or even to outbid her discursively on her own terms.
Right now, therefore, the home secretary seems to be following her most obvious political incentive and fighting back. After a period of relative quietude — an opportunity to collect and reflect on her options with intra-party allies perhaps — she has amped up her posturing, assuming positions that Sunak and other cabinet ministers cannot themselves reasonably adopt. This is the game Suella Braverman is playing.
And it comes at a time when the race to become the standard bearer of her party right is intensifying. At Conservative Party conference, Kemi Badenoch undertook to woo party activists, laying out her own political stall. And, last week, the business and trade secretary proved the star attraction at the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, a self-styled “international community” for small “c” conservatives.
This all underlines that, as an election approaches, Conservative Party discipline is getting worse, not better. For as we edge towards a national poll, so too do we creep inexorably closer to a potential post-Sunak leadership contest. And thus Badenoch and Braverman move and shake.
For Rishi Sunak, it underlines the apparent political absurdity of continuing to lay political traps for Keir Starmer, in a bid to stoke Labour division on energy for instance, while your own cabinet colleagues posture and grandstand. The Labour leader, as his performance on Tuesday showed, is seeking to exploit Conservative division.
Of course, for Suella Braverman, her decision to amp up her political posturing underlines her enduring ambition. Still, her status as Conservative leader-in-wait is also far from secure.
As the past few weeks have shown, she has several enemies in the Conservative parliamentary party; and her continued presence in the headlines may in time expose that she is a more isolated figure than her media conspicuousness justifies.
In fact, beyond 40-or-so supportive MPs, among whom her prime patron Sir John Hayes features first and foremost, Braverman is viewed as divisive in Conservative circles. A saintly martyr needs both a devout hagiographer and a mass following to transmit their story to posterity; Braverman seems to have the former — but whether she has the latter is far from clear.
It means if Sunak does decide to sack his home secretary, the consequent intra-party feuding could, perhaps, be contained. And it is an option the prime minister will surely be weighing up — especially as news breaks that No 10 did not clear Braverman’s recent Times op-ed.
But beyond these smaller considerations is the bigger dilemma of how Rishi Sunak can make progress politically while his top team is divided against itself. What is certain is that amid all the blue-on-blue scuffling, the King’s Speech opportunity has been squandered.
And so Sunak heads into the Autumn Statement on 22 November (the final third of his relaunch, after party conference and the King’s Speech), in desperate need of some quiet in the Conservative Party.
He won’t get it.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.