Sometimes it’s your privilege as a journalist to call events precisely wrong. Yesterday, some minutes before Suella Braverman was fired by Rishi Sunak, I published a blog here explaining why Sunak wouldn’t do exactly that.
Humbling though it is to be faced with a political reality diametrically opposed to the one you thought you were living in, I would still argue that Sunak has made a mistake. He seemed relieved at the Lord Mayor’s banquet last night, but it was the look of someone who has asserted himself when he’s not used to doing so, and finds belatedly that he’s enjoying it. Sunak is now dangerously exposed on his right flank, and faces an immediate potential trigger of that situation tomorrow should the government lose its appeal on the Rwanda issue.
His reasoning also seems petty. The main logic for the firing is that “the Prime Minister was sick and tired of it”. Suella Braverman has obviously stretched the bounds of Cabinet responsibility and been an irritant. But Sunak must also be aware that everybody around that table, with the possible – but not definite – exception of the newly returned Lord Cameron, would like to be in his job this afternoon if at all possible. To suddenly break out in anger about this looks like an immature reaction to an unchanging fact of high politics.
One sympathises to an extent. The far right of the Tory Party can indeed be very annoying: their mode of expressing themselves is frequently hyperbolic; they often act as though the British people would rise up en masse behind them if only Boris Johnson were made the absolute monarch of the nation; and they sometimes seem to have forgotten that reality is complex and admits of no easy fixes. But to hope to nudge them to one side is wishful thinking.
When I’m playing chess I might very well be slightly annoyed to have a group of pawns in a poor position, or a knight underdeveloped – but they are my pawns and my knight, and I need to take them under proper consideration as part of my strategy. They are an aspect of the only thing which matters: the facts of the board.
There are signs that the Chief Whip was charged with assessing the power of Braverman to cause problems in the event of her sacking. According to The Mail, only six MPs were prepared to defend her to the hilt. We shall soon see whether the Chief Whip Simon Hart got his maths right or not – but a lot would seem to depend on his having done so. Sunak has taken the view that the prospect of better government without Braverman is sufficiently appetising to risk a noisy revolt.
When we say a politician is gambling, we don’t usually say it in admiration: what we usually mean is that they had no good options but at least managed to make this series of things happen. In this case, we will have – as night follows day – a series of letters going into the 1922 Committee, and it is only a question of how many. When the only certain outcome of a gamble is an upping in the process designed to bring about your own removal, it might be argued you’re not in a great place.
Secondly, it is all too late to change what Americans call ‘the electoral math’. Very often, politicians today seek to rearrange the furniture and even do some light dusting on the proverbial sinking ship. Sometimes, feeling particularly brazen, they might fire a sous-chef, or switch around the boatswain. But its impact has to be minimal when the course of the ship is misguided, and the ship itself defective.
The photograph of Cameron shaking hands with Sunak yesterday was interesting. Whatever one thinks about Cameron, he held the job Sunak is currently doing for six years, and if one takes away the way in which it ended, it was a time of competent party management. His longevity in that role seems to come out of a different geological era compared to what we’ve had since. He undeniably brings stature just from this fact alone. Next to Sunak, he looks like he has come to visit the current occupant from a race of giants.
One wouldn’t wish to say, however, given Libya and Brexit, that the Cameron years marked some heyday in British foreign policy. I seem to recall, when growing up, that teachers would make you go back and do again the parts of your homework you didn’t get right the first time, and this appointment smacks a little of the desire to make good what was done poorly initially. This opportunity for revisiting is good for Lord Cameron, but arguably not so good for us if the earlier set of calamities was so considerable.
But how good will all this be really for Cameron? Even the rosiest of estimates makes it unlikely that he will be Foreign Secretary for more than a year, and it’s more than likely that having run the country for six years, he will now enjoy a period of six months as Foreign Secretary. It can likely never amount to more than a curious footnote to his career.
But while there are elements of foolhardiness in Sunak’s reshuffle – as there are in all gambles – it wasn’t entirely unpleasant to see him making it. There is still the sense that Sunak could be a good prime minister if a few more things were to go right, and if he were to grow in stature within the job. The country isn’t in love with Labour; the Lib Dems still hardly exist; and the SNP is increasingly a basket case.
What would actually change the situation? There probably never has been a prime minister in such dire need of a new speechwriter. Theresa May wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a good orator but she at least came up with ‘just about managing’ and ‘citizen of nowhere’.
Boris Johnson could always rely on words to connect with people, and when people talk of his charisma, I think they really mean that he could be quite funny. Leaving Truss aside as too short a premiership to discuss here, Sunak has been in position for a year without uttering a memorable syllable and it is this which has meant that he hasn’t entered the public imagination in any shape or form.
Only if this reshuffle were to be accompanied by a new voice could it be the basis on which to build towards a respectable showing in 2024. Sunak has never really told us a story about his premiership; he has to do that now, regardless of who’s sitting round the Cabinet table.