Suella Braverman appears to have gone off-script once again. Tory MPs loyal to Rishi Sunak are frustrated and increasingly suspicious of her leadership ambitions.
The Home Secretary gave a wide-ranging speech at the National Conservative conference yesterday, 15 May. She railed against left-wing gender “ideology”, spoke of her family background and warned the government (despite being a leading member of it) to cut legal migration, by, apparently, training more fruit pickers and lorry drivers in the UK. If that sounded like the launch of a leadership contest to you, then a lot of Conservative MPs agree.
Downing Street has insisted that Braverman’s words were cleared with the Prime Minister. Nonetheless, other MPs say some of them went to the Tory whips’ office to complain that she is undermining the government.
Her intervention comes before the release of official figures that are expected to show net migration could be close to 700,000 for the past 12 months – meaning the number could break a million this year.
Braverman’s words on cutting legal migration in particular – saying “we need to get overall immigration numbers down, and we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves” – are the latest evidence of a cabinet split over post-Brexit migration policy. The Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt successfully diluted attempts to crack down on international students.
Braverman’s divisions with cabinet colleagues have become public, and her intervention has also been interpreted as a challenge to Sunak.
The Labour leader Keir Starmer seized on Braverman’s hard-line stance in a speech to MPs and peers last night: “When Suella Braverman says that British workers have forgotten how to do things for themselves it’s nothing new. It’s how they [the Conservatives] respond to everything. Duck responsibility. Blame everyone else.
“She has told us their vision of the future of work in this country: ‘Let them pick fruit.’”
It does beg the question: just what does the Home Secretary need to do to get sacked? Call for non-dom status to be scrapped? Accidentally deport Theresa May? Removing Braverman from the cabinet would be politically difficult for Sunak. Appointing her after she was known to have broken the ministerial code while serving (briefly) in the same role for Liz Truss was a big call when he became PM. Reversing it less than six months later would throw his own judgement into question as much as Braverman’s conduct.
As a figure championed by a significant number of Brexiteers and Tory hardliners, such as the influential minister John Hayes, Braverman has a following on the party’s right. And, as MPs saw yesterday with her speech, her cabinet role enables her to grow that constituency.
The frustration for Sunak supporters is that she seems both unsackable and ideally placed to boost her leadership credentials. Some are urging the Prime Minister to act now rather than allow the dynamic to develop further. But following disastrous local election results, the PM may struggle to impose his authority.
How do you solve a problem like Suella? Perhaps for the moment, Sunak simply can’t.
[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]