There’s a situation in chess known as a “zugzwang”: when one player finds themselves facing a state of play where every possible move will weaken their position.
This is hardly the first time Braverman has caused headaches for the Prime Minister. You could argue that appointing her in the first place a year ago, six days after she left Liz Truss’s cabinet for breaching the ministerial code, was a recipe for trouble. Since then, Braverman has strained the concept of cabinet collective responsibility to the limit, repeatedly making comments – on social media and in speeches – that play to the right of the party and put the PM and the rest of the cabinet in the awkward position of having to distance themselves from the Home Secretary, without appearing to criticise her outright.
The reason she has remained in post so long is that she performs a useful role for Sunak in acting as a lightning rod for right-wing sentiment within the party. MPs who never wanted Sunak as PM (as well as Tory members who chose Truss over him in the 2022 leadership contest) have been ameliorated, somewhat, by the Home Secretary whose stance on immigration and law and order lies well to the right of the mainstream. Sunak’s strategy has been to use Braverman’s zealotry to keep one faction of his party (relatively) content, while maintaining more measured language himself in order to keep moderates onside.
It was always a risky approach, and now, after weeks of escalation, it is backfiring. Braverman’s position looks more precarious than at any point in the past year – but Sunak is also out of good options.
The catalyst for the crisis is the pro-Palestine protest march scheduled for this Saturday, Armistice Day, in central London. A number of Conservatives, including the Prime Minister, have indicated their unease at its going ahead on such a significant day, given the risk of civil disturbance. Braverman, however, went further by rebuking the Met commissioner Mark Rowley over his refusal to request Home Office permission to ban the protest on security grounds. Then she wrote an incendiary comment piece in the Times in which she accused the police of left-wing bias and “double standards” over the policing of protests, and compared pro-Palestine demonstrations to “marches” in Northern Ireland (angering the Tories’ traditional unionist allies as well as republicans).
The article has not done Braverman any favours. It is an open secret that she has her eye on the Conservative leadership after the party’s anticipated defeat at the next election, and her interventions over the past year – from headlining the National Conservatism conference in May to denouncing the UN Refugee Convention at a right-wing think tank in Washington in September – have effectively been a dry-run for a future campaign. (See also her tweet the weekend before the King’s Speech describing rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice”.) But the Home Secretary challenging the operational independence of the police to try to shut down a protest that is intended to be peaceful, is a deeply uncomfortable prospect for many concerned about civil liberties, free speech and government overreach – even if they do not support the pro-Palestine marchers.
For those who do think the march on Armistice Day should be banned, Braverman allowing it to go ahead while taking to the comment pages of a newspaper to rage about it looks like failure. As George Osborne put it on his podcast Political Currency yesterday (9 November): “She should be exuding all the authority of her office rather than being yet another newspaper commentator, who’s in some sense demonstrating her powerlessness. If she’s the Home Secretary why doesn’t she do something about it?”
That weakness reflects on Sunak too. I’ve heard grumbles from his critics on the right that the government should have promptly passed emergency legislation to ban the protest, rather than handing the responsibility to the Met. Such a move would obviously have been highly contentious, but as with the government’s bid to halt Channel crossings, talking tough on the issue has served to highlight the government’s failure to address it. (Remember the poll over the summer that showed that 80 per cent of people who voted Tory in 2019 lack confidence that the government can “stop the boats”.)
Is now the moment for Sunak to sack her? A decisive reshuffle today, justified by the fact Braverman reportedly submitted the Times piece without No 10’s sign-off (a potential breach of the ministerial code), would be a show of strength at a time when the Prime Minister is facing accusations of weakness from all sides. The danger is that if Saturday’s protest does descend into civil disturbance, disrupting Armistice Day proceedings or sparking violence, Braverman will be vindicated. Better perhaps to wait and see what happens, and deal with Braverman next week.
Next week, however, brings its own challenges. On Wednesday 15 November, the Supreme Court is due to rule on the legality of the government’s Rwanda plan. If the government loses, Braverman will no doubt publicly call for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which is what the plan is argued to have contravened – a move that will bolster support for her among right-wing Brexiteers but alienate moderates still further. If Sunak doesn’t take the same view, she could quit, painting herself as a martyr to the cause of stopping the boats and undermining him further.
This presents Sunak with a dilemma. Is it better to sack Braverman first and disarm her, or wait for the result and hope that the Supreme Court rules in the government’s favour? Has Braverman become so much of a liability, with Tory MPs and even cabinet members voicing public concerns about her conduct, that she needs to go regardless of the Rwanda decision? Would sending her to the backbenches neutralise her (as has been the case with the former home secretary Priti Patel), or give her renewed momentum for a leadership bid? And would replacing her with a less explosive character (perhaps Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, or the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden – both close Sunak allies) spark a revolt on the increasingly restless right of the party?
Braverman may have overplayed her hand this week, letting her ambition for a future job sabotage her ability to do the one she currently has. But she has also boxed Sunak into a corner. However he reacts, he risks making his own hazardous position even worse. The Prime Minister is in zugzwang.
[See also: Is Joe Biden toast?]