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“Nobody took her seriously”: the rise, fall and rise of Suella Braverman

She is the daughter of immigrants, a Buddhist and a Francophone. Colleagues reflect on the making of the Home Secretary.

By Martin Fletcher

On 23 November, the home affairs select committee questioned Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, about the burning issue of the moment: the UK’s borders and immigration policy. Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, asked her what safe and legal route a teenage orphan suffering religious persecution in an East African warzone could take to join a sibling living legally in the UK. Braverman replied that he could apply for asylum on arrival. But how could he arrive legally, Loughton asked? Braverman had no answer.

It was a startlingly inept performance, but then much about Braverman is startling. She is the Home Secretary who was sacked for leaking a government document, but reinstated six days later; the former attorney general who condoned the government’s breaking of international law; the erstwhile barrister who wants to curb the power of the judiciary; the daughter of first-generation immigrants who wants to slash both legal and illegal immigration. At October’s Conservative Party conference, she fantasised about a Telegraph front page showing a deportation plane taking off for Rwanda. “That’s my dream,” she said. “That’s my obsession.”

Braverman is a Brexit “ultra”. She defends the empire. She deplores “cultural Marxism”, net-zero targets, the police “policing pronouns on Twitter” and “Benefit Street culture”. In October she blamed the disruption caused by climate protestors on “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati“. Is she as uncompromising and extreme as she seems? 

Those who know her told me that Braverman is warm and generous, if a little reserved, in private. They said she generates controversy because her beliefs are deeply held and forcefully expressed. “Unlike some politicians you see today, no opinion is calibrated or triangulated,” said a long-serving aide, adding that Braverman is highly intelligent and “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen”. A supportive MP conceded that the Home Secretary sometimes “plays to the gallery” and uses provocative language, but argued: “The legal and political establishments are discombobulated by a woman who takes a different view from them, and is unafraid of them.” 

Yet a surprising number of past and present Conservative politicians talked scathingly – albeit anonymously – of their colleague. They painted a picture of an ambitious woman of modest ability and achievement who has risen to high office by shamelessly embracing populist, right-wing views. One MP remembered an amiable but lightweight “Cameroonian type of Tory” with few strong opinions when they entered parliament together in 2015. That was before she was shaped by “the hard-right, practically Ukip end of the party”, he said. “The Suella I thought I knew back then I barely recognise today.”

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A former MP who knew Braverman before she entered parliament recalled an engaging but slightly “gormless” young lawyer. He now described her as a hardcore Brexiteer and English nationalist with a “messianic” streak. “Something happened. She’s become ideologically fixated,” he said.

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When I asked another member of the 2015 intake whether Braverman was a talented politician, he replied: “No. The opposite. She speaks in slogans. She has a predictable set of views without a lot of nuance… Suella gives the impression of being a recording of a right-wing Tory, repeating messages.” A former cabinet minister told me she lacks the experience and intellect to be Home Secretary, adding: “Her ratio of ego to capacity is astronomical.”

But whether the fundamentalist views that Braverman expounds are deeply held or purely expedient, they have undoubtedly served her well. After scarcely seven years in parliament, she is now the standard bearer of the Tory right, occupies one of the four great offices of state, and arguably proved the kingmaker in Rishi Sunak’s recent coronation as Prime Minister. Like her or loathe her, that is quite an achievement.

Sue-Ellen Cassiana Braverman was born in Harrow, north London, in 1980, the only child of two immigrants of Indian descent, and raised in a semi-detached house in a pleasant avenue in multicultural suburban Wembley. She was named after Sue Ellen Ewing from the American soap opera Dallas.

Her father, Christie Fernandes, came to Britain from Kenya in 1968, aged 20, and found work in a paint factory. He later became an insurance broker and earned a degree in political science as a mature student. Her mother, Uma, was recruited by the NHS from Mauritius when she was 18 and worked as a nurse for 45 years, earning a degree in social care and the British Empire Medal. Braverman describes her parents as hard-working, aspirational Thatcherites. “They were so proud to be British and so proud to make our country even better,” she told the Commons in 2015.

Politics had become a “family hobby”, she said. Her mother served as a Conservative councillor in Brent for 16 years and twice ran for parliament. Her father was also a Tory activist, but twice failed to win a council seat.

Braverman won a scholarship to a now defunct fee-paying school, Heathfield in Pinner. During a mock general election in 1997, the year of Tony Blair’s first landslide victory, Braverman convinced her fellow students to vote Conservative. “She won round the school with her personality, her joviality and her optimism,” one contemporary recalled for a BBC Radio 4 profile. She was head girl, and an accomplished pianist and hockey player.

At Queens’ College, Cambridge, she read law and was elected president of the university’s Conservative Association, bringing fellow students down to help her mother’s (unsuccessful) campaign in the 2003 Brent East by-election. 

By the age of 23 Braverman was on the party’s candidates list herself, and the New Statesman identified her as one of a new breed of young Conservatives. “Pretty, with blonde streaks in her long hair and red lipstick, she has nothing in common with the twinset-and-pearls Tory female stereotype,” wrote Lauren Booth. “Her clothes scream high-street shop, not Harvey Nicks.”

[See also: Why Brexit is back]

As part of her degree, Braverman spent a year studying in Poitiers under the EU’s Erasmus scheme (for which British students no longer qualify, thanks to the hard Brexit she supported). After graduating, she studied French and European law at the Sorbonne on an Entente Cordiale scholarship. Braverman is a fluent French speaker, thanks to her Francophone mother, and loved Paris, but has said: “I did come back to the UK very grateful for our political system, for our centre-right politics, and for the euroscepticism which was a strain in British politics at the time.”

Called to the bar in 2005, Braverman spent the next decade practising at Cornerstone chambers, and later the London branch of a Birmingham chambers, No5. She was appointed to a panel that allowed her to take on low-level government cases concerning immigration and planning, and has said her euroscepticism arose from seeing the European Court of Justice take the final decision on immigration matters.

Just as Braverman has claimed to have been surrounded by Blairite students at Cambridge, so she has characterised herself as the “shy Tory in my chambers of right-on human rights lawyers”. Those who worked with her flatly reject that charge. “It just couldn’t be further from what we were as a chambers,” one lawyer told me. To embellish her CV, perhaps, Braverman has also claimed that she contributed to a key legal textbook on the 2005 Gambling Act. The editor, Philip Kolvin KC, recently told the Big Issue that she had merely done “some photocopying”.

Another barrister who knew her at the time told me bluntly: “She was never really interested in the bar. She was always trying to get elected [to parliament]. Nobody took her seriously in our profession.”

In the 2005 general election, Braverman stood against Labour’s Keith Vaz in Leicester East. “In 1997, Leicester Woman put her trust in Mr Blair,” she told voters. “In 2001 she decided to give him a second chance. [Now] Leicester Woman is going to give Mr Blair a big surprise that will wipe the smile off his face”. Alas, Leicester Woman failed to deliver and Braverman came a distant second.

In 2012 she failed to win election to the London Assembly. In 2014 she failed to win the Conservative nomination for Bexhill and Battle. But in 2015 Braverman was selected to contest the safe seat of Fareham in Hampshire. Months later she was elected with a 22,262 majority.

She did not immediately shine in Westminster. “I don’t think anyone would have picked Suella out as a rising star, and certainly not of the right,” a contemporary told me. Neil Carmichael, then the Tory chair of the education select committee on which she sat, never considered her cabinet material. “She was certainly ambitious, but hesitant, not always focused on the issues at hand,” he recalled.

She had form when it came to education, though. Between 2011 and 2014 Braverman had helped found a free school in Wembley, despite what she described as “much opposition from left-wing ideologues”. The Times has described the Michaela Community School as “probably the most divisive and political educational establishment, bar Eton”. Dubbed “the strictest school in Britain”, it is run with military discipline and achieves outstanding academic results, despite catering for many students from deprived backgrounds.

After the 2016 Brexit referendum, Braverman’s rightward lurch gathered pace. Fearing that a recalcitrant parliament would thwart what she saw as “a legitimate instruction from the British people”, she joined the European Research Group (ERG) and what she called its “expert, knowledgable warriors who had been on the long march towards Brexit for many, many years”.

While other aspiring young Conservatives ignored the right-wing old guard, Braverman embraced them, and in 2017 succeeded Steve Baker as the ERG’s chairman (she prefers the title to chairwoman or chairperson). She championed a pure hard Brexit; it was “not a crisis to manage. It’s an opportunity to grasp,” she told the ConservativeHome website.

In 2018, Theresa May made Braverman a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the EU. “She was useless,” an impeccable source said. “She might as well not have been there.” After ten months, she resigned in protest at May’s customs union “backstop”, calling the proposed Brexit withdrawal deal a “betrayal” – the first of three times that she would turn on the prime ministers who had promoted her. She became one of 28 Conservative “Spartans” who thrice refused to back May’s deal, forcing the prime minister to resign. To be labelled a Spartan was a “badge of honour”, Braverman later said.

She met her husband, Rael Braverman, a Mercedes Benz manager, through politics, and they married in the Palace of Westminster in 2018. “He’s an extremely trenchant Conservative,” John Hayes, the senior Tory MP and Braverman mentor, told the BBC. “Rael reinforces Suella’s conservatism.”

Rael is Jewish, while Suella is a member of a Buddhist order, the Triratna Community. Braverman occasionally attends the London Buddhist Centre, and swore her MP’s oath of allegiance to the crown on the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture.

The couple have two young children. Their son, George, was born in 2019 and Braverman – then attorney general – became the first cabinet minister to take six months’ maternity leave after their daughter, Gabriella, was born in 2021. Special legislation was rushed through parliament to prevent Braverman having to resign.

After Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, he became swiftly mired in a ferocious battle to push his Brexit plan through parliament. The Supreme Court had already ruled that May could not trigger the withdrawal process without parliament’s approval. In September 2019 it intervened again, ruling that Johnson’s plan to thwart parliament by proroguing it was unlawful.

Braverman seized her moment. She decried the political interference of “unelected, unaccountable” judges. “Our parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts,” she added, apparently overlooking that, in both its rulings, the Supreme Court was doing exactly what she professed to want: protecting parliament’s prerogatives.

Johnson approved, and in February 2020 he appointed Braverman attorney general, even though she had only a decade’s experience at the bar and was not yet a Queen’s Counsel. At 39, she was the youngest person to hold the post since 1802. 

Her appointment astonished those in the legal profession and generated widespread suspicion of Johnson’s motives. “His assessment was that she was fixated on a certain political goal [Brexit] and would provide the ‘advice’ he wanted,” a former cabinet minister told me. “He wanted someone who was going to be pliable, and she turned out to be only too happy to do his bidding.”

[See also: Behind ambulance strikes, there’s an elephant in the emergency room]

Braverman became what the Economist called “a driving force behind a doctrine which seeks to ‘rebalance’ the constitution, and which reasserts the ability of politicians to make policy without being gainsaid by judges”. Attacking the judiciary was just the start. Three months after Braverman’s appointment, it was revealed that Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had broken lockdown rules by moving his family from London to his parents’ home in Durham. Although he faced a police investigation, Braverman backed No 10’s contention that Cummings had acted “responsibly and legally”. She tweeted: “Protecting one’s family is what any good parent does.” 

Johnson then unveiled the UK Internal Market Bill, which allowed the government to disregard parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The then Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, admitted it broke international law in a “specific and limited way”. Five former prime ministers denounced it. Jonathan Jones, the head of the government’s legal department, and Lord Keen, Scotland’s advocate-general, resigned in protest.

But Braverman defended it on the grounds of “parliamentary supremacy” – the notion that parliament could pass legislation to supercede international law or treaty obligations. She went beyond the attorney general’s official advisers to seek other legal opinions, including from Richard Ekins at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, and Thomas Grant, a lawyer who had previously worked for the Trump administration.

Braverman also challenged high-profile court sentences that she – and the tabloids – regarded as too lenient. She appeared before the Court of Appeal to seek longer sentences for the three teenagers convicted of killing PC Andrew Harper in 2019. The court, unimpressed, ruled: “Mere disagreement with [the judge’s] decisions as to the nature and length of the appropriate sentences provides neither a ground for finding the sentencing to have been unduly lenient nor a ground for finding a sentence to have been wrong in principle or manifestly excessive.” 

One former law officer told me that attorney generals should use their power to refer sentences very sparingly. Braverman, in their view, “started referring sentences with which, bluntly speaking, she or the Daily Mail or the Sun just disagreed, even though they were plainly spot on in terms of the correct tariffs for sentencing.”

She enjoyed more success when she referred the acquittal of four Black Lives Matter protesters who had toppled the statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston to the Court of Appeal. The court eventually ruled that the toppling was a violent act, and so defendants in similar future cases would not be protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as the Colston Four were.

The ECHR was inspired by Winston Churchill and drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War. Braverman has argued against it and, in so doing, the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enshrines the ECHR in British law. She believes the legislation has inspired an out-of-control “rights culture” and empowered the ECHR to ride roughshod over domestic law – not least by blocking the deportation of illegal immigrants. 

Another former Conservative cabinet minister offered this damning summary of Braverman’s attorney generalship: “Her approach lowered the standards expected of law officers. She saw her role not as being about upholding the law, but advancing her populist views.” Within right-wing Tory circles, however, Braverman’s iconoclasm had only enhanced her stature. 

In July this year, Braverman joined the ministers demanding Boris Johnson’s resignation, and then – though she had never run a big department – joined the contest to succeed him. Standing on a platform of low taxes, deregulation, leaving the ECHR and “getting rid of all this woke rubbish”, she was eliminated in the second round before endorsing Liz Truss.

Truss reciprocated by making Braverman home secretary – an appointment she soon came to regret. They clashed over immigration; the prime minister wanted to relax rules to boost growth, while Braverman was eager to cut numbers to “tens of thousands” annually. “We mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves,” she declared in a rabble-rousing speech to October’s Conservative Party conference. “There is absolutely no reason why we can’t train up enough of our own HGV drivers, butchers or fruit-pickers.”

Braverman lasted a mere 43 days before Truss sacked her during a stormy face-to-face meeting. Ostensibly, this was because she had breached the ministerial code by sending a confidential government document to John Hayes using her personal email. But Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, told me: “I very much doubt she’d have been sacked if it wasn’t for the row over immigration.”

Unabashed, Braverman seized the chance to ingratiate herself with the Tory right and distance herself from a beleaguered prime minister. In a savage resignation letter, she acknowledged a “technical infringement of the rules” – but expressed “serious concerns about this government’s commitment to honouring manifesto commitments, such as reducing overall migration numbers and stopping illegal migration”.

Truss resigned the next day. Four days later, Braverman stalled Boris Johnson’s attempted comeback by backing Rishi Sunak for the leadership. On 25 October Sunak became Prime Minister and restored the ERG’s champion to the Home Office. A well-placed insider was told that Braverman had negotiated fiercely hard.

Fierce opposition to her re-appointment was fuelled by revelations that “Leaky Su” had improperly shared official documents not once, but six times. That was not a “technicality” but a “very serious breach of the rules”, according to one former cabinet minister.

Braverman was also accused of ignoring warnings that the Manston immigrant centre in Kent was dangerously overcrowded. She responded in headline-grabbing style by flying to Manston in an RAF Chinook helicopter to assess conditions “on the ground”.

Happily for her, Gavin Williamson’s resignation over bullying allegations diverted attention at the critical moment – but can Braverman survive long-term? Her detractors say she is not up to the job and will inevitably implode. Already she appears to differ with Sunak over immigration levels, the ECHR and his more emollient attitude towards the EU. A Tory backbencher told me: “If you polled MPs, Suella would be number one on the list of those most likely to blow up.”

Barring such an eruption, Braverman’s career is likely to depend on whether she can halt the cross-Channel “invasion” (her word) of asylum seekers that so preoccupies Tory voters. As Goodman put it: “She’s raised expectations on small boats – so her future may now hang on whether or not she can deliver a solution.”

That will require a lot more than the cruel Rwanda plan, or what Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has dismissed as the “rhetoric and gimmicks” that successive Conservative governments have offered to date. It will require graft, perseverance, imagination and close collaboration with France.

Put another way, it will require Braverman to prove to her many critics that there is some real substance behind the inflammatory, populist rhetoric that has propelled her so far and so fast up the proverbial greasy pole.

[See also: Is Suella Braverman being set up to fail?]

This article was originally published on 23 November.

This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special