Since taking over the Home Office, James Cleverly has insisted at pains that the time for “talking” about the department’s key responsibilities is over — people are “sick” of it. He declares that it is long past time ministers took “decisive action” on migration, legal and illegal.
Cleverly’s emphasis here, of course, is a not-so-subtle swipe at Suella Braverman, his predecessor in the department. Announcing a five-point plan to curb legal migration in parliament on Monday, Cleverly asserted he is “taking more robust action than any government before” on the issue. On cue, the recently dispossessed Braverman climbed atop her social media soapbox to declare the package is “too late” and insist the government “go further”.
In stressing his doughty professionalism and reputation for competent administration acquired at the Foreign Office, Cleverly is seeking to draw a line between himself and his predecessor. But, in doing so, he also identifies what has been described as the “curse of the Home Office” — the widening chasm between rhetoric and action in the department which intermittently, perhaps inevitably, swallows its incumbent whole.
The unfortunate career trajectory of Priti Patel is our most pertinent case in point. When she was handed the Home Office keys in July 2019, Patel was lauded as a “darling” of the Conservative Party right and oft-touted as a grassroots favourite for the post of prime minister. In turn, she embraced her image and stoked expectations; viewed in full, it made a perceived lack of delivery even more politically potent.
Thus, the Rwanda plan flowed alongside repeated migration crackdowns; but, in the end, 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. “In Patel’s case”, Paul Goodman and Henry Hill of ConservativeHome considered, “the main reason is clear: small boats”. Now languishing in the post-Home Office wilderness, Patel does still audition for the role of party leader when the opportunity presents itself. But collective wisdom suggests she has gone the way of other ambitious forbears in the department. After Amber Rudd and Sajid Javid, another “big beast” had been claimed by the curse.
The modern manifestation of the “curse”, therefore, is underpinned by a simple truth: “small boats” are much easier to talk about than to “stop” outright. Rishi Sunak’s politically sensitive fifth pledge, therefore, has put booster rockets under the salience of the “stop the boats” creed and — in turn — the “curse” looms larger still. That is the brutal reality that awaited James Cleverly, himself touted as a future leader, when he entered the Home Office on reshuffle day last month.
Then there’s Suella Braverman’s scorched earth politics — which haven’t helped matters much either. One reading of Braverman’s stint at the Home Office is that her frequent freelancing, posturing and right-wing pandering was, at every turn, a strategic gambit to force her way out before the curse claimed her and her leadership credentials.
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In this way, she would deploy her office as a platform for a future leadership challenge, at once placating figures disappointed by Patel and slowly signposting a “betrayal narrative”. As home secretary, particularly in her final months, she consciously took positions on multiculturalism, migration and “culture wars” that her colleagues in the department couldn’t themselves reasonably adopt. And all the while, she would save her correspondence with the PM, ready to be leaked to the Telegraph when the time came.
In recent weeks, we have arguably seen Braverman’s strategy play out in real-time. Having had her desired martyr status conferred upon her in the recent reshuffle, she has taken to writing her own hagiography — majoring on missed opportunities on legal migration, an ignored pre-accession pact with Sunak and a multi-point Rwanda “Plan B” spurned by an uncommitted PM. In turn, she calculates that the Home Office curse will claim her successor, leaving her free to march forward to a future leadership election with a clear “change” platform.
The Home Office is, of course, James Cleverly’s second “great office of state” after his period as foreign secretary. And in his previous post, he was judged to have greatly restored morale after it fell to rock bottom under his predecessors, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson. Could he do the same in Braverman’s wake? Might the curse have met its match in the delivery-orientated, well-liked and self-confident Cleverly?
Certainly, Rishi Sunak’s decision to shift Cleverly sideways into the Foreign Office probably suggests that the PM, like the rest of SW1, reads Conservative Home. In the grassroots survey which preceded the reshuffle, the then-foreign secretary emerged with a +71.8 net satisfaction, with a 26-point gap between himself and third place.
By shifting him sideways, Sunak was calculatedly putting Cleverly’s popularity up as collateral for his coming political torment. Cleverly’s reputation would prove a ready source of political capital as, successively, the Supreme Court ruled on Rwanda and net migration figures were released.
Thus, Cleverly’s dire in tray has — unsurprisingly — had a transformational impact on his ratings among party members. In the latest Conservative Home survey, Cleverly’s ratings plummeted from first with 72 points to 10.6 points. The situation had undoubtedly been made worse by his post-reshuffle interview with the Times newspaper, in which he suggested the Rwanda Plan was “not the be all and end all” of the government’s “small boats” strategy.
The “curse”, it seemed, was already looming large over Cleverly’s Home Office tenure; a tricky departmental question time followed as Cleverly’s deputy, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, undertook to manoeuvre himself into more forthright positioning.
So, under siege from within his department and without, Cleverly has consciously sought to fulfil his promise as the new home secretary and prioritise “action”. On Monday, he went some distance further than expected with his “five-point plan” to curb legal migration, roundly placating party sceptics.
‘Enough is enough!’: Cleverly reveals five point plan to ‘curb immigration abuses’
And, that same evening, Cleverly boarded a plane to Rwanda tasked with penning a fresh asylum accord with the African nation. The Rwanda plan, having been overseen by four successive home secretaries (if you include Grant Shapps’ brief stint), is probably the clearest manifestation of the “curse of the Home Office”. A photo-op with one’s Rwandan opposite number is nothing less than a rite of passage for a Conservative home secretary; still, the expectations that are raised as a consequence normally bode ominously for the said home secretary’s future political prospects.
Having signed the fresh treaty yesterday, therefore, the intended signal coming from Cleverly is that he is engaging with his Home Office brief with the same doughty professionalism that characterised his stint at the Foreign Office. In doing so, he intends to break with recent precedent at the department and with it, he hopes, the “Home Office curse”.
But success is still far from guaranteed. In the coming days, he alongside the prime minister is expected to proceed with the second part of the government’s plan to fix the Rwanda scheme: legislation to prevent new court challenges. And, as Cleverly and Sunak finalise their new Rwanda is actually safe bill, they must decide whether to infuriate his party’s moderate MPs or those rallying around Suella Braverman on the right. It seems increasingly like a zero-sum factional game.
The One Nation group of Conservative MPs have warned that overriding the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) under the emergency Rwanda legislation is a “red line” for the group. Whereas the Conservative right, comprised of caucuses like the Common Sense Group, the New Conservatives and the European Research Group, is adamant that the forthcoming legislation must allow ministers to override the ECHR.
Right now, it appears that Cleverly is sipping from his poisoned Home Office chalice with enthusiasm. He has sought to narrow the chasm between rhetoric and action as home secretary — while pointedly majoring on departmental “delivery” and “action”. Thus, if Priti Patel is remembered as a “failed” home secretary and Suella Braverman (she hopes) a “foiled” one, Cleverly eyes a third way.
But it remains to be seen whether Cleverly can emerge from the tumult of the next few days unscathed, let alone bolstered. Ultimately, the long lens of history may soon declare that it is Kemi Badenoch — the new grassroots favourite according to Conservative Home’s latest survey — who is the single biggest beneficiary of Cleverly’s run-in with “Home Office curse”.
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Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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