To sack or not to sack. That is the question for Rishi Sunak this week and the newspapers are presenting it as a difficult decision. I’m not so sure it is, for reasons I will explain, but there are few who would want to be in his shoes.
But then that’s also the case in relation to the financial, electoral and geopolitical state of things: essentially all aspects of his job. Given its obvious undesirability, one sometimes wonders why top-tier politicians fight so hard for the premiership: it’s like watching seagulls tussling for mouldy bread.
Sackings can often be pivotal for prime ministers. They are tests of strength and only a problem if you’re weak in the House of Commons. Braverman has some following in the Commons but she is hardly Michael Heseltine; it must also be said that it is useful to keep one’s Home Secretary if you can, since one tends to lose them anyway. It’s probably the only job in government less enjoyable than being prime minister since it involves handling immigration and crime. Sunak therefore probably approaches this problem thinking it would be better on the face of it if Braverman were to remain either in position, or in the Cabinet more broadly.
Sackings are also a question of timing. When in 1940, Churchill got rid of Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretary and replaced him with Sir Anthony Eden, it came on the back of six months of expert internal manoeuvres. The famous May 1940 Cabinet showdown about whether to fight on against the Nazis – Halifax had wanted to sue for peace – had already shown Churchill to be in control, and uniquely capable of wielding power. The eventual sacking of Halfiax, just before Christmas and after Halifax’s ally Neville Chamberlain’s death, was the coup de grace.
If Sunak were to sack Braverman now, it would exhibit no such mastery of timing, but give the impression of a prime minister responding to events moving out of his control on too many fronts. Braverman by necessity is at the core of the government agenda on immigration and crime, and more or less by accident is now also a touchpaper on the Israel-Palestine question.
I’m not sure Sunak is strong enough to remove Braverman without it weakening his position still further: he lacks a General Election mandate of his own and faces dire opinion polls. In 1940, Churchill was plainly in the ascendant; Sunak isn’t.
Cohesion at the top matters. We cannot know at this proximity to events what has and hasn’t been said around the Cabinet table, but it goes to show that a sacking should only take place if you can be sure of Cabinet and parliamentary unity afterwards. Early in Margaret Thatcher’s administration during the ‘clash of the wets’ in1981-2, Thatcher had Geoffrey Howe present the case for spending and tax cuts but was confronted in Cabinet by those ministers from high-spending departments who wished to increase their own expenditure.
These ministers, known to history as the ‘wets’ (and they are very much history), argued that Howe’s proposals didn’t show “a sufficiently imaginative and practicable response to the acute social and political problems now confronting the government”. This is the waffly parlance of the soon-to-be-defeated. Thatcher noted their disagreement and in time, sacked the lot of them.
Here we can see Thatcher’s peculiar genius for leadership at work: it is inconceivable that she would have undertaken such a culling without an important policy at stake. Sunak, by contrast, doesn’t disagree with Braverman in any meaningful sense about the reaction of the police to the marches. Both would likely prefer the marches not to have gone ahead, both accept that there is a right to march provided there is no incitement to violence (which in all too many cases there has been), and they want the police to do their jobs (and would each give the police a decidedly mixed review on their recent performance).
Where they disagree is in linguistic tone and also the procedure leading up to the publication of Braverman’s original article. While Braverman has arguably shown some disrespect to Number 10 in ignoring edits they may have had about the original article, it isn’t clear that the matter is sufficiently serious to meet the Thatcher threshold. A dismissal would therefore seem petty to those who admire Braverman – and wouldn’t have the upside of demonstrating particularly forceful leadership by Sunak.
Sunak is usually good at stepping back from media-driven speculation and considering the facts of a situation. One of his main strengths is that he doesn’t panic. His tendency to seek further information before he makes a big decision, also makes it seem likely that he will wish to see how the cards fall on Wednesday, when the Rwanda ruling, the release of inflation figures, and a debate in the Commons on the SNP’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza, are all taking place.
Temperamentally, one would expect Sunak to wait for Wednesday than to risk all by going for the jugular on Tuesday and firing her beforehand. If the government wins the ruling the following day – he has essentially a 50-50 chance of doing so – it might look odd to those outside the Westminster bubble for him to have fired his Home Secretary the previous day.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said that prime ministers tend to win this sort of confrontation. He is a politician-turned-newspaperman who is egging Sunak on to fire Braverman, and it is not for us to say that he is craving drama for the sake of it. It’s true that prime ministers are often in a stronger position than they realise in these matters – until one day they aren’t. Howe, removed by Thatcher eventually, was the one to wield the knife when she did eventually resign. But she achieved an enormous amount before that point because she always knew where she was going.
Sunak is temperamentally more similar to Tony Blair who brought Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet after sacking him. He also to some extent resembles David Cameron, who preferred not to rock the boat, and rarely got into unnecessary spats with ministers. Well-dressed, well-mannered, I sense that order is important to Sunak. With the electoral position somewhat perilous, it might be that he has far more to lose than to gain by removing his Home Secretary.
And if he does? It’s impossible to know what chain of events that may spark, the extent of support for Braverman and the flimsiness of Sunak’s own position. But it would herald a change in Sunak’s approach to government and be somewhat out of character for him to do so. This is the unique pressure of high office, and this is the week where we will see how this particular occupant handles it.
Update: this article was published at 7.03am, about an hour before Braverman was sacked.