Both the dismissal of Suella Braverman and the appointment of David Cameron shifted the government away from excitable populism towards a calmer, more pragmatic approach. It is a welcome change of tone from Rishi Sunak but as I argued earlier this week, encouraging though it was, it is unclear whether this heralds a wider change in strategy.
Clearly, Braverman had made her position untenable and had to go. This created a vacancy for one of the great offices of state but with no obvious big-name candidate to fill it from the parliamentary party. For a government languishing in the polls, a bold appointment might cut through and change public perceptions (which neither the Conservative Party conference nor the King’s Speech succeeded in doing) while also drawing attention away from the sacking of the home secretary.
This might just be a tactical move. Sunak’s record suggests that this is possible. Whereas Cameron, especially in his early years as Tory leader, would define himself against the right of his party, Sunak has generally sought to keep them close. On some issues, he is himself right wing but even when he differs from the right (on Liz Truss’s fiscal policies and, belatedly, on Boris Johnson’s fitness for office), he has chosen to avoid conflict whenever possible. He spent September abandoning net-zero policies and started October trashing a “30-year political status quo”, which looked like an implicit criticism of Cameron. Whatever one thinks of this, it did not resemble a strategy to return to pre-Brexit conservatism.
For this reason, it would be premature to declare that Sunak wants to bury populism and that the liberal centre-right is in the ascendant. That, however, is not the view of some on the right. The Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns has announced to the world that she and six others have submitted letters of no confidence in Sunak to the 1922 Committee; David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg have filled the pages of the Daily Telegraph with denouncements of the Prime Minister; Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates have accused Sunak of abandoning the Red Wall to shore up support in the Home Counties. In their eyes, Sunak is a liberal metropolitan who might as well be a contributor to The Case for the Centre Right.
[See also: What is Labour Together?]
This creates two obvious risks for Sunak. First, Braverman was clearly going to go for him, restraint not being a conspicuous quality of hers. Predictably enough, her “resignation letter” was intemperate, although one wonders how she was able to stay within government for so long given her apparent disagreement with all Sunak was doing. He is not going to be brought down, but the Tories’ divisions have been exposed.
The second risk is avoidable but depends on the Prime Minister. He might seek to minimise any rebellion by appeasing the right. Isolate the Bravermanites (if that is such a thing) but offer enough to the rest of the right to keep them sweet. It is generally what Conservative leaders have done but he should not be under any illusions that he will ever be able to satisfy them. It would also negate any benefits accruing from the reshuffle.
Even if Sunak has decided that the best way to avoid a landslide defeat is to appeal to liberal conservatives in the Home Counties, he should not assume this will be a simple task given everything that has happened since 2016. Dumping Braverman was necessary but not sufficient. As well as distancing himself from the Johnson and Truss administrations, he must, for example, resist calls to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, even if the right is (wrongly) blaming the rejection of the Rwanda scheme on our membership of it. Strategic discipline is needed. Sunak’s language on the ECHR yesterday lacked that discipline but, on the substance, he has tried to kick the issue into the long grass.
So far, the protests from the right have not yet resonated as they might. In Braverman, Sunak was fortunate in his opponent. The former home secretary had a good hand but played it badly. By backing Sunak in October 2022, she was appointed to a great office of state, was the most prominent right-winger in government and had a portfolio that enabled her to make populist pronouncements. With a modicum of political skill, she could have either maintained her position or, alternatively, picked a moment that was to her advantage to go. Instead, she made a succession of clumsy remarks that alienated even many of her natural supporters and got herself sacked at a moment of weakness. Her reaction looks like sour grapes.
It must be a source of great frustration for the right that, for all their power, obtaining and maintaining the party leadership – or even a senior ministerial position – appears beyond them. They have much of the print media on their side, plus GB News now. The last general election was won through social conservatives enthusiastic about Brexit, making them a key part of the electorate. The Conservative Party membership now leans very firmly rightwards and can be relied upon to vote accordingly in leadership elections. And yet, when candidates of the right (or, to be more precise, with the support of the right) have won, they have soon imploded. Now the party is run by someone who is defying them and almost all the senior figures on the right are on the backbenches.
Nothing in politics, of course, is permanent. When the Conservatives lose next year, as still looks very likely, the right will almost certainly be back. But for the moment, their howls of pain reveal that they are no longer in charge.