When future scholars take to writing the history of Rishi Sunak’s premiership perhaps they should begin with this week: a King’s Speech spurned, spiralling intra-party antagonism and, at the centre of the controversy — as ever — Suella Braverman.
The home secretary, of course, occupies a central place in the still-unfurling Sunak story. During the fast-tracked October 2022 leadership contest, the Home Office was essentially surrendered to Braverman by the PM-to-be. At a time of heightened political psychodrama, Braverman and Sunak’s much-purported “pact” was an act of relative elegance. Conservative MPs were fumbling for a prime minister to fill the gap left by the Trussite interregnum; but here were two former opponents agreeing to put their differences aside in favour of mutually assured career development. Home Office keys to Braverman, No 10 to Sunak — “Granita pact”-esque.
Whether Braverman’s support was sufficient or necessary in Sunak’s successfull bid to burst the bring back Boris bubble is moot. But her appointment as home secretary sent important signals to the right-wing of the Conservative Party that Sunak would, in fact, pursue a “big tent” mode of governance — despite his support deriving mainly (and incongruously, as I have suggested before) from “one nation” MPs. Historians, then — less interested in the content of controversial Times op-eds than they are in the political environment in which they are created — will locate in this fateful episode the seeds of Sunak’s present tumult.
For any junior partner of a pre-ascension “deal”, the immediate windfall tends to be the creation of a personal fiefdom in government — with the rising minister reigning tyrannical in the desired department. Thus, Braverman, literally empowered by Sunak, sees fit to act essentially as secondus inter pares in government — freelancing at Nat Con, in Washington and in her Times article.
In this way, the real story here is far bigger than Braverman, a conclusion I’m sure posterity’s judgment will vindicate. Rather, it’s about Rishi Sunak’s ailing authority after a year of failing to revive his party’s dire polling prospects. It underlines that as we approach a general election, Conservative discipline is getting worse, not better; for as we edge closer to a national poll, so too do we creep inexorably closer to a potential post-Sunak leadership contest.
But let’s hone in on the home secretary: what does she stand to gain from the outbreak of disharmony in Conservative ranks? On the surface, she seems to want to scorch her party before she leads it.
Perhaps tellingly, Braverman’s loyal advocates have today assumed defensive formations. Miriam Cates cautions: “At this very serious time for our country, do we really think that the public are interested in who cleared what article or do they want to see leadership from our politicians?”.
Danny Kruger comes in: “Terrorist sympathisers are marching thru [sic] London calling for the destruction of the Jewish state while the police stand by — but hey let’s all focus on which version of an article was cleared by No 10. Can the media possibly please focus on the things that actually matter?”. (Notably, several other Braverman acolytes have shared similar Tweets, or issued analogous briefings to friendly journalists. The level of coordination would suggest that, (1), Braverman’s support base remains loyal and organised and, (2), they are worried about the future of their ideological standard-bearer).
For their part, Kruger and Cates are co-chairs of the “New Conservatives”, a faction which — together with the rump European Research Group — provides a rough outline of the extent of Braverman’s support in the party. It is usually suggested that Braverman’s loyal support in the Conservative parliamentary party amounts to 40 or so MPs. In this way, while such individuals might be organisationally savvy, loud and backed by powerful media voices, is such a backbone of support enough for Braverman to emerge strengthened by a cabinet exit?
On top of this, the past few days have also exposed the level discord in the Conservative Party when it comes to the controversial home secretary. Ultimately, for every Miriam Cates or Danny Kruger, there are rather more Sir Bob Neills — the justice select committee chair who yesterday described the home secretary’s position as “untenable”.
And do not forget also: consecutive cabinet ministers in Alex Chalk, Claire Coutinho, Steve Barclay and, most recently, chancellor Jeremy Hunt have all refused to clearly back the home secretary over the last week. One unnamed cabinet minister even told the Times: “[Braverman] has been a totally useless minister and is now making the mistake of believing her own publicity. She is toast”.
When it comes to Conservative leadership contests, winning the support of senior colleagues is significant: Kemi Badenoch was bolstered by the patronage of Michael Gove in the summer 2022 leadership contest, for instance. As far as Braverman is concerned, is Sir John Hayes’ consummate support — devout though it is — really enough?
How might the Conservative Party figure factionally after an election?
This analysis begs a few other questions — including the matter of whether the ideological dynamics of the Conservative Party will alter, and shift rightwards, in the outcome of defeat in 2024. That is unlikely, according to new data from Survation and Royal Holloway; in fact, there seems to be no correlation between the size of an MP’s majority and their estimated position on left-right economic issues.
But here’s another pertinent point: the Conservative right’s political power and potency is borne of media-conspicuous, outspoken individuals — while the party’s one nation clique is strong on account of its sheer numerical weight.
This would suggest that a potential electoral pruning in 2024 (or 2025) bodes ill for Braverman’s long-term political prospects. Kruger, who boasts a 23,993 majority in Devizes will be safe; but I count few other New Conservatives who look set to survive an election defeat — even on a swing someway short of that currently forecast by the polls. The rump ERG will, all other things being equal, remain — but many of Braverman’s most prominent media supporters will be lost.
Competition on the Conservative right
On top of this, the prevailing view is that — in orchestrating her own downfall — Braverman will emerge stronger in her party, with a readily deployable betrayal narrative, ready for a future leadership contest. But is the still-home secretary really the far-and-away frontrunner for the mantle of right-wing candidate in a future leadership contest?
Of course, the home secretary’s most obvious competition for this is Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, who like Braverman is understood to be enduringly ambitious. Her performance at the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship conference, an international gathering of conservatives, showed she has far from given up the fight for the right — in spite of upsetting ERGers on the Retained EU Law Act.
Meanwhile, Miriam Cates is another viewed as a rising star on the Conservative right, and her loyalty to Braverman could be tested if she continues to be touted as a potential leadership candidate. And if Cates’ majority of 7,210 doesn’t survive the next election, step up Danny Kruger — considered to be something of a party right intellectual and former political secretary to Boris Johnson.
Personalities aside, the key point here is that Braverman is going to emerge from her current travails with serious political baggage. A saintly martyr needs both a devout hagiographer as well as a mass following to transmit their story to posterity; Braverman seems to have the former — but does she have the latter? Indeed, a betrayal narrative might be concocted by her most ardent advocates; but the incessant briefing from critics yesterday and today shows she has alienated some powerful, very senior colleagues with her recent antics.
What do the Conservative membership think?
Another point worth raising is the question of how Conservative members will view Braverman’s recent manoeuvring. The Conservative membership is a frequently caricatured collective — and, in at least one sense, such curiosity is justified: they produced prime minister Liz Truss against the better instincts of their parliamentary representatives.
So step up Conservative Home’s “cabinet league table”, which samples the tastes of party members on all cabinet-attending Tories once a month. This collective consciousness of the Conservative Party is viewed as offering crucial hints as to its future ideological direction. And this week it noted that Suella Braverman had a 43.5 net satisfaction rating, down four points from the previous month — despite (or maybe because) of her criticism of multiculturalism, and conference performance. Ahead of her were veterans minister Johnny Mercer, leader of the House Penny Mordaunt, Badenoch and, topping the table, foreign secretary James Cleverly.
Where next for Suella Braverman?
In the end, it is clear Braverman now has several enemies in the Conservative parliamentary party — rather more than she did at the beginning of this week. Her continued presence in the headlines may in time expose that she is a more isolated figure than her media conspicuousness justifies.
Importantly, the relevance of these points is not conditional on whether Sunak sacks or saves Braverman. But that both the home secretary and the media are potentially overstating the still-home secretary’s political power might mean that if Sunak does sack her, the consequent intra-party feuding could, perhaps, be contained.
Step back, and the reason for this all round overestimation is a consequence of, (1), the fact that Sunak saw fit to empower her in October 2022 and, (2), the enduring quietude of the sleeping giant that is the Conservative one nation faction. Now, if those factors are both about to change, expect the mood music around the controversialist-in-chief Braverman to change, too.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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