In a week where the King set out the Government’s priorities for the next year, in what may be Rishi Sunak’s final chance to pass legislation whilst still in office, it’s not great that the headlines are once again about Government infighting.
Even beforehand, headlines were dominated by an intervention by the Home Secretary who called for restrictions on the use of tents by the homeless. Later in the week, Suella Braverman went off script once again by publishing an op-ed comparing pro-Palestinian marches to what you are “used to seeing in Northern Ireland.”
No 10 were quick to disagree on both counts, and it seems Braverman openly defied an instruction from No 10 to tone down her article.
Is Braverman looking to be fired? Well probably yes actually. Braverman consistently and deliberately is ignoring orders from No 10. But why? She may be looking at the case of Priti Patel: once a darling of the Conservative right, but when given the chance to reduce immigration as Home Secretary, she failed, and her leadership credentials faded away. Braverman is not shy about wanting to be the leader should the Conservatives lose the election, and she may have calculated she is better off gaining support from her peers from the backbenches rather than being held responsible for failures to deliver on immigration. Simply resigning probably wouldn’t cut it, it would look like she was giving up and that she wasn’t up to the task.
On the other side, Sunak reinstated Braverman to this Great Office of State to balance different factions of the party, and so to sack her could be seen as starting a fight with the right of the party, one he simply lacks the authority to have right now. Also, he would probably rather her firing attacks at anyone else rather than at him right now, and a backbench Braverman would have plenty of time and ammunition. So we’re seemingly at an impasse: a Home Secretary who wants to be fired, and her boss who is unwilling to give her the satisfaction.
Party management has a big part to play, perhaps even too weak to hold a reshuffle, Sunak risks annoying some MPs by not firing Braverman but then equally risks a backlash from a separate group of MPs for firing her. The official line, for now, is that Sunak has “full confidence” in the Home Secretary.
But there are a couple of flashpoints that could force Sunak’s hand. First, if trouble arises at the demonstrations over the weekend Braverman could either feel vindicated in her comments and criticise the police or even be blamed for inciting trouble with her comments. Second, on Wednesday the Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the Rwanda scheme. If they rule the scheme illegal the ball will be in Sunak’s court. He could fight back and seek to pass legislation to overturn the ruling, but if he doesn’t Braverman can call him weak and resign in protest.
A further complication is that Labour are putting more fuel on the fire by claiming Braverman has broken the ministerial code by openly going against collective responsibility. Traditionally the PM takes advice from an independent adviser on if a breach has taken place, but ultimately the decision is with him. Sunak, however, previously promised to follow the advice he was given taking the decision out of his hands.
There doesn’t seem to be a good way forward for Sunak – stuck between a rock and a hard place, he has a tough decision on his hands. Continued indecision will simply not do. This is exactly the type of challenge that can help define a PM: will he shy away from taking a stand or will he show decisive leadership?