One of the great paradoxes of politics is that the most astonishing gambles are so often taken by the most cautious leaders. Caesar Augustus was meticulously careful about everything he did, yet recklessly bet on challenging Mark Antony at Actium. “Strong and stable” Theresa May staked her career on a hopelessly flawed Brexit deal.
Rishi Sunak is cut from similar cloth. “Captain Sensible” has, for all his fastidiousness, consistently shown a predilection for huge if calculated gambles. We saw it when he defied his Cameroonian clique to back Brexit during the referendum. We saw it when he risked a massive revolt by the green blob by rolling back some of the country’s net zero commitments. Now the Prime Minister threatens to unleash the fury of the Tory Right by sacking Suella Braverman and bringing David Cameron in from the cold.
The conventional reading is that Sunak is merely doing what is necessary. The line being spun is that Cameron’s comeback not only symbolises the healing of Conservative family rifts, but lends the party a measure of heft and experience that it has been lacking.
It is also correct that the PM had little choice but to let Braverman go. Had the Prime Minister allowed one of his most senior Cabinet ministers to not just get away with – but actively thrive on – undermining his position, bolstering her own popularity among the grassroots at his expense, it might have become impossible to enforce a united Cabinet line on anything. Tory politics might well have swiftly collapsed into a beauty pageant for the next party leader.
Braverman is also, in truth, no great loss to the Government. She may have her fans in conservative circles, but her track record at the Home Office was dire. Net migration has surged to more than 600,000, the asylum processing system has collapsed, and the number of migrants crossing the Channel from countries other than Albania remains scandalously high.
The Department for Education mercilessly thwarted her bid to slash number of foreign students. In the end she settled for fiddling at the edges, constraining the ability of students to bring family members, and lobbying for a rise in the pay threshold for foreign workers to mere pre-Brexit levels.
Unable to establish herself as a politician who gets things done whatever it takes, Braverman settled for styling herself as a conservative who tells it like it is, whatever the consequences. It was, of course, ultimately her undoing.
The fact remains, though, that the PM is making the gamble of his career. As an insurgent who seized power after the defenestration of Boris Johnson and implosion of Liz Truss, his power base is pure Game Theory, founded on a suboptimal equilibrium: a status quo that remains stable even though none of the factions grudgingly propping him up – from the green Tories in Lib-Dem target seats to the Brexiteer Spartans – are particularly happy.
Has Sunak destroyed the careful balance of power upon which his position is based? He resisted replacing Braverman with another Right-winger, opting instead for the more emollient Brexiteer James Cleverly, who raised eyebrows on the backbenches while foreign secretary for parroting the Civil Service line on China and Saudi Arabia. This is not to mention the fact that many Britons will be bewildered by the return of Cameron. It is as if we are condemned by the laws of eternal return to replay the hellish saga of the past 13 years from the beginning.
Whether the risky path Sunak has chosen proves to be worth it depends on whether he elects to do something radical with his new team. It is surely game over if his advisers have managed to persuade him that there must be a return to the cuddly Conservatism of the Cameron years. A wrong move now threatens the party’s very survival.
Yes, Braverman’s rhetoric was often not only morally beyond the pale but also strategically nonsensical. The Conservatives ultimately dominate mainstream centre-Right politics, not by shouting in outrage at a broken system, but by trying to fix that system and delivering on their manifesto promises. But it does not follow that what is called for is some dramatic makeover of the “Nasty Party” to win over London Tories and Lib Dems. The significance of the Blue Wall is overstated by southern-centric politicos, two-thirds of the next election’s battleground seats are in the culturally conservative North.
The PM seemed to understand this when he announced his move on net zero, however. And Wednesday could be when we find out what this reshuffle really means for the Tories. That is when we discover whether the Government will lose its Supreme Court appeal over the Rwanda plan. If the judgment goes against it and the new Cabinet shrugs its shoulders and does nothing, it could face a revolt by the Tory Right over its immigration failures. It is not inconceivable that Braverman could spearhead a campaign from the backbenches for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
But what if, instead, Sunak uses the moment to take his party in a daring new direction – making a bold pitch to take Britain out of the ECHR, perhaps allying that with a daring plan to slash benefits? In which cast Cameron might be an ideal ally.
For a brief and brilliant moment, in the eye of the storm of the financial crash and before he was captured by the Remainer Blob, Cameron seemed at least to partially grasp that the era of Blairite politics – whereby the aim of the game was to fund an ever-expanding welfare state through an economy run on cheap money and cheap labour – had crumbled. He understood the potential of galvanising a populist movement to cut the welfare state. He also accepted that reducing migration over the long term was politically non-negotiable, and he was certainly no great fan of the ECHR.
Which way will the PM go? Sunak must know that both the Tories – and the country – stand on the edge of a precipice. A brewing scandal is that Jeremy Hunt may be unable to cut taxes or protect public spending in the Autumn Statement, in part because the Bank of England remains out of control, hell-bent on selling off government bonds from its quantitative easing binge.
The NHS faces a nasty winter crisis, with the impact of strike action taking its toll and waiting lists yet to peak. Public attitudes to immigration are hardening again as frustration at the failure of the Government to end illegal Channel crossings converges with renewed anxiety over Islamist extremism being incubated in insular communities on our shores.
We’ll find out very soon whether Sunak has gambled with a full comprehension of the stakes. For now we can only gape slightly dumbfounded at British politics’ latest shock turn.
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