Why is Rishi Sunak letting Suella Braverman freelance on foreign policy across the Atlantic today (26 September)? That’s the question to keep in mind as we digest the Home Secretary’s speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC – an address in which she challenged the global asylum framework by taking aim at the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention (describing its application as “absurd” and “unsustainable”).
For Braverman, this wasn’t really a speech about refugees at all. On the eve of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, it was a pitch for the leadership. Uncontrolled and illegal migration is an “existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West”, she declared – words many Tory members will welcome.
While Conservative MPs insist their party still has a narrow path to victory at the next election, everyone knows that the race to succeed Sunak is already underway. Braverman, the darling of the party’s pro-Brexit right, is staking her claim from within Sunak’s cabinet, just as she did by delivering a keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference in May.
Her decision to deliver the speech at a US think tank was also notable – and no accident. The UK right has long looked across the Atlantic and sought to learn lessons from the success of a more muscular conservatism. As one expert in populism put it to me: “The right wing of the Tory party is increasingly trying to court favour with parts of the American right and form a transnational alliance on issues like LGBTQ+ rights, migration and ‘wokeness’.” (The National Conservatism Conference that took place in London was organised by an American-led organisation; the chair of the conference, Christopher DeMuth, used to be president of the American Enterprise Institute where Braverman gave her speech.) There are opportunities – money, contacts, support – for UK politicians who align themselves with this US movement, as Braverman is surely well aware.
There was a similar political logic to the Home Secretary’s attack on the UN Refugee Convention. Sunak and Braverman made illegal migration a headline policy issue at the start of the year; for Braverman, it is the defining issue in her policy brief. But the Conservatives have struggled to deliver. The government’s actual pledge – to “pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed” – has become conflated with the notion that it can and will “stop the boats”. The Illegal Migration Bill became law in July, but the boats keep coming. (The government is currently appealing a legal ruling against its Rwanda deportation policy.)
True, the numbers appear to have fallen slightly (something Braverman and Sunak will seek to highlight), but as of 29 August, 20,101 people had crossed the Channel in small boats this year. Small wonder that, according to a recent poll, 80 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019 said they lacked confidence that the government could “stop the boats”, and that a plurality believed Braverman was doing a bad job.
Having drawn the nation’s attention to a major policy challenge and then failed to fix it as promised, Braverman needs a scapegoat – in this case, international law. (Though the UN Refugee Convention doesn’t give refugees the right to “pick their preferred destination to claim asylum” or prevent governments from transferring them elsewhere, as Braverman heavily implied.) Attacking the global framework is a way of deflecting blame and looking tough on a problem that the government has so far failed to solve.
Braverman was not subtle in what she was trying to do – and she doesn’t need to be. Despite fears among Conservative moderates that her fervency on this issue (“gleeful”, as one despondent Tory put it) has made her a liability and could repel as many voters as it attracts, Sunak has to date accepted that risk and kept her in post.
And Braverman’s broadside against the UN could be useful to him. It signals to the right that his government is serious about tackling illegal migration – so serious that the Home Secretary is desperate to rip up international conventions to do it. And it makes the Prime Minister appear moderate by comparison: a warning to the Tory “wets” angered by his net zero U-turn and other right-wing policy shifts.
But the fact remains: the more Braverman rages about illegal immigration, the more attention the issue gets, and the worse the Tories’ failures will look to their own supporters. Braverman doesn’t need to care – her sights are set beyond the next election. But Sunak, if he wants to have any chance of political survival, does. So the Prime Minister will once again have to decide whether his home secretary is more of an asset or a liability.
There are rumours of a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle after the Tory conference, so the PM may be waiting to see how Braverman’s “existential challenge” rhetoric is received before making a decision. If the Washington speech lowers her own approval ratings while Sunak’s own “reset” – announcing changes to net zero, HS2 and A-levels – proves successful in shifting the polls, he might feel bold enough to finally sack her. After all, she’s already running to take his job.