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10 November 2023

How has Suella Braverman survived so long?

The Home Secretary is that most unfortunate thing: an unpopular populist.

By Jonn Elledge

It’s not hard to find polling showing support for the return of the death penalty in certain circumstances. Significantly more voters say that immigration has been bad for Britain than that it’s been good. More voters supported than opposed the government’s awful, bone-headed scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, and nearly two thirds of them have consistently felt that criminal sentences are too lenient. There is a vast pile of evidence to suggest that, on policing and borders, the great British public is authoritarian and far more aligned with the Home Office than with those of us who’d tear the place down and start from scratch.

It feels noteworthy, then, that Suella Braverman has followed the authoritarian playbook to the letter, yet remains one of the least popular politicians in the country. As of late summer, YouGov put her net favorability rating at -39, which is worse than certain communicable diseases. Just this week, Ipsos found she was substantially less popular than the Prime Minister, Chancellor, leader of the opposition or Steve Barclay. The fieldwork for that poll was conducted before the Home Secretary promised to deal with the homeless by confiscating their tents, mind, so perhaps she’s since overtaken one or two of them. 

And yet, Braverman remains the darling of the Tory right, a colossus of such stature that Rishi Sunak had no choice but to reinstate her as Home Secretary a mere six days after she’d been fired for breaching the ministerial code in 2022. The Channel boats keep coming, the Rwanda flights remain grounded; but even as she fails on her own terms, Braverman remains unassailable.

This week might have finally changed all that. Thursday’s Times included a column in which the Home Secretary described this Saturday’s planned pro-Palestine protest as being “of the kind we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland”. Since it was the nationalists she presumably had in mind but the unionists who hold all the marches, and since neither side much liked being compared to Hamas, this managed to offend the entire population of one of the UK’s constituent nations at a stroke. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the same article rebuked the Metropolitan Police for allowing the march to go ahead in the first place (there is no legal basis on which to ban it), and castigated that famously liberal body for being so much kinder to left-wing causes than right-wing ones. Citation, frankly, needed.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Suella Braverman nightmare isn’t over]

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It is one thing for a Tory home secretary to denounce protesters, the left or the pro-Palestinian movement. Quite another to denounce the police and the entirety of one of the home nations at the same time. By Thursday night, there were briefings emanating from No 10 that a reshuffle was imminent, and then Braverman would be sorry. By Friday afternoon, no such reshuffle had taken place, and the briefing had switched to warning that everyone had got a bit overexcited.

All of this raises two questions. One is why a woman whose unpopularity is matched only by her incompetence is still described as a plausible future Tory leader. The obvious conclusion is that this is one more sign that the right is in a bubble, in which getting good reviews on GB News or the front page of the Daily Mail is wrongly assumed to be the same as being able to win votes. These guys have managed to go a whole year without noticing the 20-point Labour poll lead, after all: perhaps expecting them to do a deep dive on Braverman’s personal ratings is expecting too much.

The other question is why the Prime Minister hasn’t sacked her. Tory friends tell me that Rishi Sunak believes in party unity – that he would never risk a split, as Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings did when they threw a few dozen MPs out of the party over Brexit in the autumn of 2019. But from here on the cheap seats it looks a lot like the biggest threat to party unity is a home secretary intent on launching her post-election leadership campaign before that election has actually been fought. It’s one thing to say it’s better to have someone inside the tent, pissing out. But what if they’re still pissing in?

So sacking Braverman, perhaps even withdrawing the whip, would not just assert Sunak’s authority, it would remove a potential threat. The right will scream bloody murder – but it seems unlikely they’d do anything that’d risk losing the whip themselves this close to an election. The more likely result, surely, is that it would remind everyone who’s actually the Prime Minister. By letting Braverman go freelance inside cabinet, Sunak risks looking like he’s too weak to get rid of her. Worse: he actually is that weak.

There is another possibility, of course. “Virtue signalling” is a charge often levied at those on the left – they don’t really care about poor people or minorities, they just want to pose as good people. Even if accurate, that surely beats its opposite, “vice signalling”, in which politicians of the right highlight their own cruelty or heartlessness in an attempt to score votes from the wicked.

Sunak has proved unable to win over this group, despite being pro-Brexit, fiscally austere and opposed to most progressive policies. So perhaps keeping Braverman is a form of vice-signalling in itself. Then again, when his Home Secretary insults a large chunk of the public, and the police, and the entirety of Northern Ireland, all at the same time – perhaps it’s simply that the Prime Minister agrees.

[See also: How the Conservatives ended up at war with the police]

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