It’s been almost two months since Suella Braverman was offered the poisoned chalice of returning as Rishi Sunak‘s Home Secretary. Her appointment was immediately followed by calls for her to resign, given that she had had to leave the same role in Liz Truss’s government just six days earlier following a serious security breach.
There was political strategy behind Sunak’s decision to reappoint her. Braverman is a prominent figure on the right of the Conservative Party, the biggest internal threat to Sunak’s leadership. Giving Braverman a major role in the cabinet was an attempt to neutralise that threat and placate those Tory members still irate at the removal of Boris Johnson earlier in the year.
Sunak may have made the deal to secure his premiership in the first place, but there’s more too. The role of Home Secretary is notoriously difficult. Multiple scandals have plagued the Home Office over the last few years, not least the Windrush debacle revealed in 2018, in which thousands of people with the right to live in the UK were harassed by the Home Office and some wrongly deported under the “hostile environment” immigration policy. Accusations of bullying and reports of inefficiency, incompetence and racism have plagued the department. The rise this year in migrants crossing the Channel in small boats has brought the challenges of the job into the spotlight again.
So by giving the job to Braverman, not only has Sunak kept a prominent right-winger member inside his tent, he has laid one of his most problematic political issues firmly at her door. If the Conservative right wants to get a handle on immigration, then they can do it themselves.
Is Braverman being set up to fail? Last week she potentially signed her own political death warrant when she told the Times that this was “last-chance saloon for us when it comes to tackling illegal migration”. “It will be unforgivable if we don’t fix this,” she said. Either Braverman is certain that her department can get to grips with the crisis, or she is prepared to walk away should she fail. Perhaps she’s trying to assert authority and power over Sunak. Either way, she has made this issue her defining challenge when many would be eager to see her fall.
On Wednesday Braverman faced the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee over illegal immigration. It was a difficult session for the Home Secretary, who refused to rule out using cruise ships to house asylum seekers. She had a similarly tough time before the Commons Home Affairs Committee in November, when she was unable to explain to the Labour MP Paula Barker why asylum seekers were due to be sent to a derelict hotel in her constituency. She was also unable to deny that decision-makers in the Home Office were relying on Lonely Planet and Rough Guide travel books for their information as to which countries were safe for refugees.
Last week it was the Prime Minister, not the Home Secretary, who announced new immigration reforms to get a handle on the small boats crisis, which won the approval of his party. It seems Sunak is setting Braverman up to take the heat of scrutiny, while announcing reforms himself. This might be a shrewd political move that could neutralise Braverman once and for all. Any failure, he can lay squarely at her door. Any success, he can keep for himself.