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15 November 2023

The Tory right’s divided tribes

Suella Braverman and her allies have a radically different outlook to the party’s free-marketeers.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Say what you like about Rishi Sunak, but even his fiercest critics will concede that he’s good at spreadsheets. That “technocratic” skill set, for which the Prime Minister has often been derided over the past year, helped him answer the difficult question of how to solve a problem like Suella Braverman.

The cabinet reshuffle on 13 November was meticulously planned, with the surprise return of David Cameron knocking Braverman’s departure down the news agenda. This stalled the momentum that she hoped would take her from home secretary to Tory leader-in-waiting. By denying Braverman the chance to resign, Sunak deprived her of the opportunity to become a political martyr.

Her backers are outraged by Sunak’s “betrayal”. Appointing Braverman as home secretary, six days after she was sacked from Liz Truss’s government, was the price Sunak reluctantly paid to win over the right. Her departure has unleashed a year’s worth of anger with a leader these MPs never wanted.

But anger doesn’t necessarily equal results. In the week before Braverman was sacked, it was briefed that several cabinet ministers would resign on principle, Spartacus-style, were she to go. None actually did (the ministers who did stand down during the reshuffle did so for personal or work-related reasons), making her explosive letter to Sunak 24 hours later look desperate rather than dangerous.

At a meeting on 13 November of the New Conservatives, that much-hyped group of traditionalist Tories, only 12 MPs turned up, with eight more joining on Zoom. The next day, co-chairs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates published a scathing letter lamenting Sunak’s decision “to abandon the voters who switched to us last time, sacrificing the seats we won from Labour in 2019 in the hope of shoring up support elsewhere”, but stopped short of calling for him to go.

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We don’t know how many MPs have made good on their anonymous threats to send letters of no confidence in Sunak’s leadership to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee. But only one felt confident enough to publish their letter. (Fifty-three Tory MPs, 15 per cent of the parliamentary party, are required to trigger a confidence vote.)

[See also: Can David Cameron make amends in Scotland?]

That Andrea Jenkyns, the MP for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls’s former seat), chose to express her fury so dramatically, raging that Sunak had “purge[d] the centre right from his cabinet and then sack[ed] Suella who was the only person in the cabinet with the balls to speak the truth”, does not change the fact that she was alone in doing so. “Jenkyns going over the top in such an insane way is fairly reassuring,” one Tory moderate told me.

Why has the promised backlash been so muted so far? One crucial factor often overlooked when we talk about the “right” of the Tory party is that we are discussing at least two very different factions.

On the one hand, there are the economic right-wingers, such as Simon Clarke, John Redwood, Ranil Jayawardena and Lord Frost. Call them Trussites or free-marketeers, this is the wing that believes in the philosophy behind Kwasi Kwarteng’s ill-fated mini-Budget in September 2022. The rallying cry of the economic liberals – closely associated with think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies – is to prioritise growth above all and to cut taxes and regulations at every opportunity. There are about 50 of them in the Conservative Growth Group, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. They saw Brexit as a chance to finish the job Margaret Thatcher started, and they view higher legal immigration as an economic opportunity, not a threat.

Braverman has never been a hero to these free-market MPs. While it was Truss who first appointed her home secretary, it was also Truss who first fired her. The pretext was a row over unauthorised email use but the pair had already clashed over plans to offer more work visas to stimulate the economy. When I’ve asked Trussites what they make of Braverman’s anti-immigration zeal in the past year, they’ve pivoted uneasily to the separate issue of illegal Channel crossings. Many have privately voiced discomfort with her rhetorical onslaught against multiculturalism and the coming “hurricane” of mass migration.

Braverman’s most ardent supporters are of a different persuasion entirely: the Red Wallers, the anti-woke-warriors, the Tories for whom Brexit was primarily about getting immigration down, restoring national sovereignty and reducing London’s economic dominance. This group – which includes Kruger and Cates, along with John Hayes and Lee Anderson – is far more drawn to culture wars and takes a more authoritarian stance on law and order. (Trussites tend to be relatively relaxed on social issues and identify with the civil libertarian tradition.)

Some figures, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kemi Badenoch, straddle both groups, and Boris Johnson was an expert in uniting them. There are areas of overlap: the demand for tax cuts and the belief that Brexit’s opportunities have been wasted. But the groups differ on what those opportunities are. And, while both are fed up with Sunak, there is no consensus about who might be better.

It is in the interests of both factions to be bracketed together as “the right”: a force Sunak must take seriously. But what the Prime Minister seems to have realised, after a meticulous examination of the numbers and careful calculation, is that their chance of triggering a confidence vote is slim, and that Braverman herself is more divisive among right-wing MPs than is often assumed.

None of this means the danger is over. There are major confrontations ahead – on the European Convention on Human Rights, on tax cuts and, following Cameron’s return, on foreign policy – and if the Tories’ poll ratings remain dismal, MPs may panic ahead of the general election. The Trussites might not have been true believers in Braverman but they feel betrayed and abandoned by the direction in which Sunak has taken the party. The vibe shift the Prime Minister is trying to achieve, back to the perceived “centre ground” and focusing on the Blue Wall seats in southern England, is a delicate balancing act.

The full price for sacking Braverman may only be known at a later date. But for now, the spreadsheet has done its job.

[See also: The Cameron delusion]

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures