Rishi Sunak promised integrity and professionalism in his first speech as Prime Minister. He knew that the scandals under Boris Johnson were hitting his party in the polls. And he was right: when asked where the Conservative government had most gone wrong, the biggest factor for voters was the handling of political scandals, according to polling for Onward.
That’s why the controversy surrounding the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, is important for Rishi Sunak. Braverman was sacked (or she resigned – it’s still not clear) for sharing secret documents; six days later she was reappointed to the position. At least four Conservative MPs have now expressed concerns over whether the security services can trust her not to leak information.
So why was she reappointed? The move was a sop to the right of the party, an attempt to ensure Sunak had the support of enough MPs to get bills through parliament. He also needed to reward Braverman’s endorsement during his race to secure nominations for the Tory leadership. But that he had to do both speaks to his weak grip on the party; his decisions are being determined by the need to unite MPs. On top of that, he now has a scandal-prone individual occupying one of the great offices of state, with question marks over whether she can do the job.
The broader political point is that Sunak cannot make a clean break from the past. He is bound to the governments of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. He says he wants to deliver the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto but he doesn’t have the money to do so following Covid, the war in Ukraine and the cost of the mini-Budget. He says he wants to restore integrity to government, but the fissures in the party have forced him to appoint a Home Secretary apparently against the advice of the Cabinet Secretary. Sunak has inherited the finances of Liz Truss, the scandals of Boris Johnson and the divisiveness of both.
Will Rishi Sunak simply preside over the managed decline of the Conservative Party, or is he its saviour? The scandal over Braverman is one more reason to bet on the former.
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