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13 November 2023

Rishi Sunak’s Suella Braverman nightmare isn’t over

The sacked home secretary and aspirant Tory leader will be an unrestrained back-bench foe.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Suella Braverman has finally been sacked as Home Secretary after a week of mounting tension over her position. She has released a statement saying “it has been the greatest privilege of my life to serve as home secretary”, adding: “I will have more to say in due course.”

Rishi Sunak has come close to sacking her before, but the decision will still not have been easy. Last week, I wrote of the Prime Minister’s political headache over Braverman: as she enjoys the support of a faction of the Tory party that never wanted Sunak as PM, getting rid of her was seen as too risky.

The comment piece she wrote for the Times last week accusing the Metropolitan Police of double standards when policing protests appears to have been the last straw. The article drew widespread criticism, including from Conservative MPs, who argued it would make the police’s job over the Remembrance weekend harder, and that it risked inciting violence. The confirmation on Friday that No 10 had not signed off the article sent a clear indication that Braverman did not have the backing of the Prime Minister. But had the pro-Palestinian march through London descended into violence, Braverman would have appeared vindicated in her repeated calls for it to be banned.

Instead, it was the counter-protesters, who arrived at the Cenotaph on Whitehall under the pretext of protecting it from pro-Palestinian marchers, who caused the most trouble for police. While there were incidents with both sets of protesters, with nine officers injured, the Met has said that, of the 145 arrests made, the “vast majority” were counter-protesters.

This will have given Sunak the confidence to make a decision he has been struggling with for months. As Braverman has ramped up her rhetoric over the past year – on small-boat crossings, on immigration in general, on homelessness and, most recently, on policing – the Prime Minister has tried to distance himself from her without veering into outright criticism. It was even harder for the cabinet ministers sent out on the morning broadcast rounds and tasked with defending whatever explosive comments the Home Secretary had made that day. (Braverman has tended to stay away from interviews, preferring to make her interventions in speech or tweet format where she does not have to face scrutiny herself.) As a general election draws closer, having such a high-profile cabinet minister routinely freelancing on sensitive policy areas would only have become more dangerous.

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[See also: Why it’s too late to save football from VAR]

This weekend’s events have tipped the balance. It made Braverman look not just extreme but, crucially, incompetent too. As I wrote, the Times piece, however fiery, implied a lack of authority. Effective secretaries do not merely howl in the comment pages of newspapers; they use their powers to get things done. Braverman succeeded in turning the Armistice Day demonstrations into a culture war, but not in preventing them from taking place. Even some of those who agree broadly with her stance have been muttering that she looks weak, and seems more interested in campaigning to be Sunak’s successor than in making a difference in the role she has. Add to this the accusation that the Home Secretary’s intervention encouraged counter-protesters to turn up and therefore made the police’s job harder, and Sunak finally has a clear pretext for getting rid of her.

Braverman seems to have realised this. Her tweets on Sunday night, in which she doubled down on her position and stated “this can’t go on”, read as if she was daring the PM to sack her.

And so he has. The timing is helpful to Sunak, ahead of Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling on whether the government’s Rwanda asylum plan is legal. Sacking Braverman now deprives her of the chance to resign on principle and demand that the UK leaves the European Convention on Human Rights (if the ruling does not go the government’s way).

But political risks remain. On the backbenches, Braverman will have a smaller platform but even fewer restraints. MPs on the right of the Tory party, some of whom were threatening to submit letters of no confidence in Sunak to the back-bench 1922 Committee at the end of last month, will not suddenly change their minds about him. And the new home secretary, James Cleverly, will face all the intractable challenges that his predecessor did – such as public attention on the failures Braverman has spent the past year highlighting.

Sunak may be relieved to finally have someone he can trust in the role, but that won’t make any of the problems that gave Braverman the political oxygen to build her brand and lay the basis for her leadership campaign go away.

[See also: Inside London’s day of rage]

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