Sacking Braverman - A High-Risk Move For Sunak
Politics Home November 11, 2011
Rishi Sunak may have finally reached the end of his tether with Suella Braverman, but getting rid of the Home Secretary is no easy move for a Prime Minister already under intense pressure. Her Tory backbench supporters warn that they would not take her sacking quietly.
There was a stunned silence among reporters at Downing Street's daily media briefing on Thursday morning when Sunak's official spokesperson confirmed that No10 had not approved Braverman's explosive op-ed that was published in The Times newspaper.
The hushed astonishment was followed by the noise of journalists' pens furiously scribbling the details of an extraordinary rupture in the already-strained relationship between Sunak and his Home Secretary — an act of defiance which has forced the Prime Minister into one of the trickiest political decisions of his premiership so far: should he sack Braverman?
White hot fury
That question – which bitterly divides the parliamentary Tory party – was almost certainly at the top of the agenda when Chief Whip Simon Hart, Deputy Chief Whip Marcus Jones and Sunak's Parliamentary Private Secretary and right-hand man, Craig Williams, were huddled around a table in Portcullis House – the building on the parliamentary estate where MPs have offices – on Thursday lunch time, visibly deep in discussion.
The trio, who together serve as a conduit for Conservative backbenchers to express their feelings to Downing Street, has this week been inundated with complaints from furious Tory MPs about the Home Secretary's recent remarks about homelessness, which she said was a "lifestyle choice", and her description of a pro-Palestine rally that will take place in central London today as a "hate march".
A senior Tory figure quoted by PoliticsHome on Thursday said it was an "understatement" to say that there was anger within the parliamentary party.
MPs who have this week expressed their dismay over Braverman to Sunak's Praetorian Guard are not just the usual suspects who have previously complained about her behaviour, PoliticsHome understands. While there have been waves of anger prompted by the Home Secretary before, such as earlier this year when she appeared to undermine Sunak's efforts to reduce immigration, on this occasion it has been more fierce and widespread.
In her piece for The Times, the publication of which No10 is "looking into", the Home Secretary went on to accuse the Metropolitan Police of a "double standard" in how it responds to protests by different groups, essentially accusing officers of being more lenient in how they handle left-wing demonstrators, which is not borne out by the data.
She also described pro-Palestine marches as what "we are more used to seeing in Northern Ireland", prompting outrage and bewilderment across the Irish Sea.
A source close to Braverman insisted that she was referring to dissident republican terrorists, which is an inflammatory comparison in itself. But she has also been accused of initially mistaking loyalists, who as Sky News' Ireland correspondent David Blevins pointed out in a searing analysis hold the vast majority of marches in Northern Ireland, with republicans.
"Unbelievable" was the verdict of one former Northern Ireland Secretary.
PoliticsHome understands that the press team in Downing Street had asked Braverman to make significant changes to the piece before giving it to The Times for publication, including the removal of the comparison with Northern Ireland, but this did not happen.
No easy option
The dilemma Sunak now faces is significant. Sacking Braverman, which MPs in the One Nation, moderate wing of the parliamentary Tory party are particularly keen to see, would be a chance for him to demonstrate strength amid allegations of weakness. On a practical level, it would mean less time spent by him and Cabinet ministers having to distance themselves from her latest headline-grabbing comments.
But removing or even demoting Braverman from Cabinet risks infuriating her avid supporters on the right of the party who would like to see her become their next leader. Many of the MPs, including Danny Kruger and Lee Anderson, are in the so-called Common Sense group, which met in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon in a show of support for the under-fire Home Secretary.
“He [Sunak] is going to find it very difficult to get rid of her without creating more political difficulty than he already has,” one Braverman supporter told PoliticsHome.
The Home Secretary's backers believe that there could be resignations if she is sacked. Anderson, the deputy leader of the Conservative party, who has said people outraged by her remarks “need to get out more", is believed to be prepared to quit if she is removed.
Timing is everything
If the PM does opt to follow through with sacking Braverman, timing is a significant issue, too. There are plenty of Conservative MPs who would have liked to see her go immediately.
As one former secretary of state put it to PoliticsHome this week: "Why doesn't he [the Prime Minister] say, 'fuck it, I'll govern how I see fit and if you don't like it, bye'"?
But there is a feeling that sacking her before the weekend would have created the risk of huge embarrassment for the Prime Minister and vindication for the Home Secretary if the Metropolitan Police fail to prevent violent clashes linked to the pro-Palestine march in Westminster, which to the anger of many Tories is taking place on Armistice Day.
"He risks making her look like a martyr if he sacks her and then there is disorder," acknowledged one senior Conservative MP who wants Braverman removed. “It’s pretty clear that he will carry the can for it," said a veteran Tory MP. "He will lose massive political credibility.”
The Prime Minister also has Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling on the government's Rwanda policy to consider. An unsuccessful appeal will fuel calls from the right of the party for him to take the UK out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) — loud calls which Braverman would be very likely to spearhead if returned to the backbenches.
Conservative MPs who believe Sunak will sack Braverman say it is most likely to happen as part of a wider Cabinet reshuffle, which could take place as soon as next week. But Sunak's patience with Braverman is wearing thin.
When he appointed her as his Home Secretary a year ago, the rationale was that it would be better for him to have her inside the tent than hurling rocks at it from the outside. Now with Braverman "pushing the envelope as much as she can" from the inside, as one of her ardent supporters put it, Sunak is seriously considering whether that rationale still applies.
Additional reporting by Nadine Batchelor-Hunt.