Rishi Sunak’s embrace of Suella Braverman is not as surprising as it seems. It is the ultimate marriage of convenience, whether it be long or (far more likely) short. It also reveals a lot about Sunak’s growing ruthlessness.
The deal—Suella Braverman’s support in last week’s Tory leadership election, in return for the home secretaryship—was done at the critical moment over the weekend before last when Boris Johnson was edging towards the crucial 100 MPs needed to take the contest to Tory members in the country. Sunak’s team had an all-too-credible fear that the members might elect Boris over the heads of most MPs, in a rerun of the Sunak-Truss contest.
By securing Braverman, Sunak split the right-wing European Research Group, which had mostly supported Truss and was indispensable to Johnson. This was necessary to form a government of any kind, given Johnson’s weak support among Tory MPs. Without strong ERG backing, Johnson had no hope whatever—and it was slim beforehand—of being able to fill the hundred ministerial posts with even a semblance of credibility.
Forget that Braverman had only days earlier been forced to resign for serious breaches of the ministerial code. Forget that she was serially incompetent. Forget that the ERG’s former chairman and chief ideologue Steve Baker had already declared for Sunak, at a price far lower than Braverman’s. All this might have been enough for Sunak to draw back from a deal in the first leadership election this summer, which was going to end up with the members in any event. Not this time. Once bitten twice shy, making assurance doubly sure—choose your cliché.
There is of course now the inconvenience—and brand damage for Sunak’s “integrity” image, which he hopes will win him the centre ground—that Braverman is home secretary again, already showing signs of implosion. She has been involved in multiple scandals, including the leaking of official documents and the possible failure to comply with the law in respect of the appalling treatment and overcrowding of asylum seekers in the Manston reception centre in Kent.
Sunak won’t be unduly distressed if Braverman sooner or later has to resign. But meanwhile she is useful to him to appeal not just to the Tory right, but also to pro-populist anti-immigrant voters well beyond the party faithful. He is even playing the rhetoric both ways: Braverman isn’t disowned for her blood-curdling Powellite language of “invasion”, while the more circumspect immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, a close ally of Sunak’s, says they wouldn’t be his choice of words.
In this respect, it doesn’t yet matter to the government that Braverman’s policies are unviable and disgraceful—although it may begin to if the small boats keep coming to Dover in such large numbers and asylum applications remain in the high tens of thousands, with the system for assessing, returning, housing and otherwise providing for asylum seekers in meltdown. Until that happens, and Labour establishes a poll lead on immigration, Sunak and Braverman at least believe they have populist support for sounding “tough”. One poll this week even shows a majority for the ludicrous, hugely expensive and probably illegal Rwanda “asylum deportation” policy, which is why Sunak hasn’t dumped that either.
Maybe, before long, real solutions will have to be provided. Maybe Sunak’s Number 10—or a new home secretary—will have to negotiate with the French and other EU partners for workable collaborative approaches to border control, including policing, and procedures for the return of asylum seekers to their “first safe nation” of transit, similar to those we used to have in the EU.
Maybe, even more radically, more safe legal routes for asylum seekers will have to be agreed, to tackle the small boats surge. Maybe the rhetoric too will be toned down, with greater regard for decency rather than populism, and to forestall rather than embolden the far right.
Maybe the whole asylum machinery will be focused on competence, compassion and delivery, including in the timely assessment of applications and in the provision for asylum seekers and their families.
Maybe. But almost certainly not until Braverman has resigned yet again, and until her policies and rhetoric are considered—even in Tory circles—to have failed. Even then, Sunak’s marriage of convenience will very likely switch just from Braverman to someone almost as bad. Remember Priti Patel?
This article is from Andrew Adonis’s weekly newsletter for Prospect—The Insider. Get The Insider straight to your inbox every week by signing up here: