It is easy to be critical of Rishi Sunak for reappointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. Indeed, I have had a go myself. Braverman was right to resign on 19 October for breaching the ministerial code, as she herself said in her resignation letter. Six days out of office is clearly inadequate punishment and her early return was only going to raise questions about precisely what happened. Braverman’s explanations of what happened have been inconsistent, which will only encourage greater scrutiny.
The situation at the Manston migrant processing centre is also under scrutiny. The number of refugees held there has increased significantly since Braverman was first appointed Home Secretary. This is unlikely to be a coincidence. She denies “ignoring” legal advice but her denials are very carefully worded.
Braverman’s response to the criticisms has been to play the populist card. She is the one who is determined to stop the flow of migrants and is prepared to tell it as it is by calling it an “invasion”. She is the one who faces a witch-hunt for standing up to the liberal elite on behalf of the law-abiding majority. There is an audience for this but most Conservative MPs – including fellow Home Office ministers – find it distasteful.
She is also likely to be ineffective in solving the problem. For all her boasts that she would be the one to fix the issue, she has not set out a solution. There is no straightforward answer but the measures necessary to reduce the flow of small boats across the Channel are unlikely to appeal to Braverman: strengthening the UK’s relationship with the French, improving and accelerating the processing of asylum applications in Britain and providing alternative routes to apply for asylum. She could strengthen our ability to identify illegal immigrants but there is little Conservative support for the measure that could really help: introducing digital ID requirements.
What was Sunak doing appointing her to high office? Here was a new Prime Minister who could present himself as a person of compassion, competence and integrity but appointed to one of the great offices of state someone apparently missing all three qualities. The answer, of course, was that this was a transactional appointment. Sunak wanted to win the Conservative leadership but faced opposition from the right of the party. If the right consolidated around another candidate, that candidate would have met the threshold for MP nominations and – if recent history provides a precedent – gone on to win the members’ vote. The offer of a job in return for an endorsement meant none of this happened and Sunak became Prime Minister with little drama just five days after Liz Truss’s resignation.
It is all very grubby and Labour will use this to tarnish Sunak. This is fair enough but it is worth viewing this from Sunak’s perspective. Putting aside any arguments about personal advancement (which, admittedly, it is hard to do), it was in the national interest that the party leadership matter be resolved quickly and it was certainly in the national interest that Boris Johnson did not return to the premiership. If Sunak had not stooped to conquer, Braverman might still be Home Secretary but under Prime Minister Johnson.
The harsh reality is that obtaining the leadership of the Conservative Party these days requires an accommodation to be reached with the populist right. Now that Sunak has the leadership, he is in a stronger position to dispense with Braverman if the case against her is irresistible but, even then, dangers exist.
The concerted efforts of her fellow European Research Group members in parliament to support her demonstrate that a sizeable minority of Conservative MPs have not given up on the Home Secretary. They will be quick to cry betrayal if she is forced out, regardless of how overwhelming most of us find the case against her. Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, will soon announce large tax increases and keeping the right onside will not be easy. Antagonising them by failing to back Braverman will make matters worse.
Internal party management is one issue. There is a complex external issue, too. Braverman may put off some Conservative voters but she is supposed to appeal to others. Yet by drawing attention to migration she increases the relevance of Nigel Farage, who has moved swiftly from being a Braverman critic to being an ally. If she goes, he will see that as an opportunity. He will point to her rhetoric about the asylum system being broken and argue that she is a victim of the liberal elite and has been stymied by her “globalist” Prime Minister. The more Braverman raises the profile of the issue, the bigger the threat Farage poses to the Tories, which in turn makes Braverman more valuable to Sunak. There is a risk this creates a vicious circle.
The strange case of Braverman illustrates the dilemma faced by many Conservative leaders in dealing with the right. One cannot govern effectively with them; one cannot govern effectively without them. That dilemma became more acute after 2019 when Johnson leaned into the realignment of British politics and created a new, more populist coalition of Conservative support. This has not made Braverman indispensable but, sadly, she is a great deal less dispensable than she should be.
[See also: The uncertain future of the Tory party]