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13 November 2023

Rishi Sunak has remembered he needs centrist voters too

David Cameron’s return shows the Prime Minister is no longer just pandering to the Brexiteer right.

By David Gauke

Sacking one’s home secretary would normally be seen as a dramatic move but, as it turned out, it was not even the most eye-catching decision of Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle. Bringing back a former prime minister and making him foreign secretary is one of the most unexpected appointments of modern times. Only the restoration of Peter Mandelson to the cabinet in 2008 by Gordon Brown is comparable.

In terms of the quality of the cabinet, exchanging Suella Braverman for David Cameron is a huge improvement. Yes, I know many who never supported the Conservatives will complain about austerity. Even some Tories will complain about the decision to call an EU referendum in 2016. But he is a figure of substance who transformed the Conservative Party, led it to power and was evidently capable of holding high office without embarrassing the nation (which is more than can be said for two of his successors).

Braverman, in contrast, has been a disaster. Within a few weeks of being appointed to the role of home secretary, she broke the rules and had to be sacked by Liz Truss. She was reappointed six days later by Rishi Sunak to help him see off Boris Johnson, a decision he must have regretted ever since. On a regular basis, ministers doing broadcast rounds have been asked if they agreed with the last pronouncements from the home secretary and have had to find tactful ways of saying “no, of course not, that is completely bonkers”.

[See also: John Gray on the return of David Cameron]

It came to a head over the protests in London at the weekend. There are important points to be made about the offensive and anti-Semitic elements of the pro-Palestinian marches, but Braverman did it in such a clumsy way that she made the job of the police harder and has to take some (but not all) of the blame for the appearance of violent, far-right thugs at the Cenotaph. In pure political terms, what might have been an awkward moment for Labour (when the far left is prominent it is usually bad news for the party) turned into a very difficult weekend for the government.

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Braverman had to go. It would have been better had she gone earlier but the timing of these matters is usually a bigger concern for those who follow them very closely – and most voters don’t. Her supporters will claim that she will be a threat from the back benches, but her significance stemmed from the role she had not her abilities. She was well placed when reappointed to lead the right, but her obvious incompetence burned off much of her natural support. Sunak will hope that Braverman turns out to be the Tory equivalent of Rebecca Long-Bailey, a former future leader representing the extremes of her party but now an irrelevance.

The big question that arises from the reshuffle is whether this represents a strategic change of direction or merely a change of personnel. Most had assumed that Sunak would tack to the right in advance of the next election, trying to recover those who had switched to the Tories in 2019 to get Brexit done and were attracted to Johnsonian populism. This reshuffle suggests a very different approach. It is also a very different approach to the one Sunak took at the Tory party conference last month when he denounced a failed 30-year consensus (which presumably included Cameron’s administration).

The Conservative coalition of 2019 was very broad, encompassing populist Red Wallers and liberal conservatives concerned over Jeremy Corbyn. The latter group looked like it would be neglected at the next election, as it has been for most of the parliament. Judging by Braverman’s sacking and the appointment of Cameron, though, perhaps Sunak thinks there are some votes from the centre ground he needs after all.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Suella Braverman nightmare isn’t over]

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