Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, likes to compare Tory right-wingers to crocodiles who lurk around the Conservative boat. Successive leaders have fed them buns to keep them happy, he once told me, but “the trouble comes when you run out of buns”.
John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May were all gobbled up by the Conservative crocs once they had exhausted the delicious tidbits that they kept throwing the hardliners. Boris Johnson thought he could simultaneously have the buns and eat them and discovered he could not. Liz Truss jumped right into the water with the reptiles and did not survive.
Now Rishi Sunak is in danger of making the same mistake as his predecessors with the reappointment of Suella Braverman.
The new prime minister promised in his speech on the steps of Number 10 that his government “will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” He told the voters: “Trust is earned and I will earn yours.”
But one of his first acts was to bring back a home secretary who less than a week before had been forced to quit for breaking the ministerial code by leaking sensitive information.
Last night Jake Berry, the former Conservative chairman, claimed Braverman had committed “multiple breaches of the ministerial code”. This may be why Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, was said to be “livid” over her swift return, given her breach of security while in the job under Truss.
That is not the only problem with the return of Braverman. Sunak struck a moderate, One Nation tone in his first address to the nation when he promised to govern with “compassion” and “unite our country”. And yet he has appointed to one of the four great offices of state a woman who has deliberately set out to foster division by saying it was her “dream” to see a plane full of asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda, ideally by Christmas, and attacking the “tofu-eating wokerati” as part of a bogus culture war.
The only way to understand the incongruity is to see Braverman as a bun tossed to the crocodiles in the hardline Brexiteer European Research Group. The prime minister is weaker than he seems and so he feels that he needs to keep his right-wingers at bay by throwing them snacks. He has promoted one of their favourites to the cabinet after she supported his second bid for Number 10. It was, as Keir Starmer said at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday: “a grubby deal trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election”.
The problem for the prime minister is that history suggests that his political generosity will only make the crocodiles hungrier.
Braverman did not simply make “a mistake” for which she has apologised, as James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, suggested this morning. It was not a minor “error of judgment”, as the prime minister claimed.
The home secretary acted with intent as part of a concerted political campaign to influence government policy. TheSunday Times reported that she deliberately sent cabinet papers on immigration to her private email, then to John Hayes, a stalwart right-winger now on the backbenches. She also attempted to copy in Hayes’s wife but in fact sent the message to another MP’s assistant.
The policy in question had not yet been agreed in government and had been the subject of a furious row between Braverman and Truss. The leak was presumably designed to scupper the then prime minister’s attempts to liberalise the immigration rules. Braverman had for weeks been consulting Hayes as an unofficial adviser, as part of a shadow policy team that she appears to have been running outside the Home Office.
There is no reason to believe that she will be any more loyal to Sunak than she was to Truss. Her ambition will soon drive her to strike political poses for the right-wing faction of the Conservative party she seeks to represent as a figurehead. Already tensions are starting to emerge over immigration policy. The home secretary has said that she wants to bring net migration down below 100,000; this week Number 10 made clear that the prime minister does not support a target. He also disagrees with her views on foreign students. One senior Tory says the reappointment of Braverman “will be a total disaster” and the Times reports that Home Office officials are already predicting that she will be gone by Christmas, describing her as a “human hand grenade”.
It was reassuring this week to hear the prime minister promise to prioritise “stability and confidence” and refreshing to hear him admit that there will be “difficult decisions to come”. The grown-ups are back in charge of the Tory party, and Sunak’s promise to “build a government that represents the very best traditions of my party” was a welcome break from the days of the cabinets of nodding dogs appointed by Johnson and Truss.
The majority of his cabinet appointments were designed to balance the different Conservative traditions, and the return of big hitters including Michael Gove and Andrew Mitchell will improve the governance of the country.
But by bringing back Braverman as home secretary, Sunak was acting with his party not the nation in mind. He has shown his vulnerability and the crocodiles around the Tory boat will already be scenting blood.