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4 July 2023

Why Rishi Sunak needs to sack Suella Braverman 

The Home Secretary’s toxic populism is doing the Prime Minister more harm than good.

By Martin Fletcher

In recent days Suella Braverman has seen her plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal; her own department reveal that the cost of sending a single asylum seeker to Paul Kagame’s police state is likely to be a prohibitive £170,000; and her Illegal Immigration Bill savaged in the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, the Tory Brexiteer Steve Baker, a former ally of Braverman’s and no soggy liberal, has reportedly withdrawn his support for her over the Home Secretary’s relentless pursuit of culture wars and inflammatory rhetoric about grooming gangs.

All of which raises – once again – certain questions. How much longer does the country have to put up with its hateful and incompetent Home Secretary? And why does Rishi Sunak keep her in his cabinet when he is so eager to distance himself from the ugly populism of Boris Johnson’s misgovernment?

Braverman is Johnson’s creation. She had briefly served as a junior minister under Theresa May before resigning over her proposed EU withdrawal deal in 2018. Just over a year later, amid widespread astonishment, Johnson plucked her from the backbenches to become attorney general. Braverman was just 40, had only a decade’s experience at the bar and was not yet a Queen’s Counsel, but he wanted a malleable AG and she had been a vociferous critic of the Supreme Court’s interventions over Brexit.

She did not disappoint. Despite being the government’s chief legal adviser and highest-ranking law officer, she supported Dominic Cummings when he broke Covid lockdown rules by driving his family to Durham. She also defended the UK Internal Market Bill which allowed the government to disregard parts of the EU withdrawal agreement. Even Brandon Lewis, then the Northern Ireland secretary, admitted that the legislation broke international law in a “specific and limited way”, while five former prime ministers denounced it and the head of the government’s legal department and Scotland’s advocate general resigned in protest.

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Braverman’s loyalty to Johnson had limits, however. She joined the ministers demanding his resignation last summer, then joined the contest to succeed him. 

Swiftly eliminated, she backed Liz Truss who reciprocated by appointing her Home Secretary. That relationship also ended badly. Braverman openly resisted Truss’s plan to relax immigration rules to boost growth, and was sacked after 43 days for leaking confidential government documents to her back-bench mentor, the hard-right John Hayes.

Despite that, “Leaky Su” was restored to her post within six days after Truss herself resigned. In the subsequent leadership contest Sunak – desperate to stall Johnson’s attempted comeback – bought her support by promising to bring her back. 

As Home Secretary, Braverman has done precisely nothing to heal this divided country. She denounces “woke rubbish”, and mocks the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”. She cracks down on protests of every kind. She decries net zero targets and the “Benefit Street culture”. She revels in being provocative, once telling the Times: “If I get trolled and I provoke a bad response on Twitter I know I’m doing the right thing. Twitter is a sewer of left-wing bile.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak now needs Suella Braverman more than ever]

But it is on immigration that Braverman is most offensive. She talks of an immigrant “invasion”. She says immigration threatens the “national character”, and that those arriving on small boats bring increased criminality and “possess values which are at odds with our country”. She has indiscriminately blamed British-Pakistani men for grooming gangs. 

And then there is the Rwanda plan that she inherited from her predecessor, Priti Patel. At last October’s Conservative Party conference she said, almost obscenely, that her “dream” and “obsession” was to see a front-page photograph of a plane full of asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda.

No matter that Kagame’s Rwanda is one of Africa’s nastiest regimes – one that has routinely murdered its opponents, rigged elections, banished international NGOs and neutered its parliament, judiciary and independent media (to grasp the full extent of its venality, read Michela Wrong’s masterly Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad).

No matter that the Court of Appeal has declared the plan unlawful because Rwanda has not proved it is a “safe third country”. Or that it is prohibitively expensive. Or that it is decried as cruel and draconian by almost every national and international humanitarian organisation. Or that Braverman’s own permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, sent her predecessor a formal letter to warn that the plan may fail in its central goal – to deter people-smuggling across the Channel. Or that 12 months after the plan was first announced, scarcely 34 per cent of the public believed the deportation of migrants to Rwanda would reduce the number of crossings.

All that misses the point. Though they have already paid Rwanda £140m, Braverman and Sunak know full well that the plan may never be implemented. But it serves their purpose in another, very different, way.

It gives the illusion of tough, decisive action. It serves as a wedge issue. It helps them escape responsibility for the soaring number of asylum seekers. It allows them to blame Labour, leftie lawyers, judges, peers and the establishment “blob” for the government’s failure to “take back control” of Britain’s borders, as promised in the 2016 Brexit referendum. They may yet seek to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. 

But is it really in Sunak’s political interests to champion Braverman and her Rwanda plan? It may play well in Red Wall constituencies, but they are almost beyond Sunak’s electoral reach now and I suspect most voters elsewhere find it shameful and repugnant. In total, 42 per cent of the electorate support the Rwanda plan while 39 per cent oppose it, according to a YouGov poll last week. And when Fiona Bruce asked a predominantly Tory Question Time audience in Exeter whether they backed the plan not a single person put up their hand.

Does Sunak not think, moreover, that the blame-shifting strategy will have worn thin if he has not redeemed his pledge to “stop the boats” by the time of next autumn’s probable general election? Does he really want a Home Secretary who seeks – disgracefully – to undermine the integrity and independence of the judiciary by complaining, as she did after last week’s appeal court ruling, that the system is “rigged against the British people”? Does he really want such an egregious populist to front his government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”?

And does he really trust Braverman? The Rwanda plan serves her political purposes in a second way. It advances her ambition to succeed Sunak as Conservative Party leader as the right wing’s standard-bearer. 

If you doubt that, read the rabble-rousing, woke-goading, elite- and expert-bashing speech that she delivered to the National Conservatism conference in May. She even challenged her own government’s plans to ease labour shortages by admitting more legal immigrants. 

Braverman, who has betrayed every prime minister she has served, was shamelessly setting out her stall.

[See also: Why Suella Braverman is unsackable]

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