What does it take to be sacked as a government minister these days?
I remember a distant past when ministers were expected to follow a government line, or collect their P45. Perhaps you remember it, too. Times have changed.
In a matter of a few weeks, home secretary Suella Braverman has claimed the UK is facing a “hurricane” of immigration – something that it’s part of her job to stop.
She also provoked outrage by suggesting rough sleeping is a “lifestyle choice”, and that homeless people should not be given tents to sleep in.
Now, she’s claimed in an article in the Times that the Metropolitan Police “play favourites” when it comes to policing protests. She also called pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches”.
Labour shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has said Braverman is “out of control”, undermining police independence and encouraging extremism on all sides.
What’s this row all about? At the heart of it is a protest organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in London on Saturday, the same day as remembrance events to mark Armistice Day.
Organisers have insisted the march will take place well after the 11am minute of silence, and away from the Cenotaph war memorial on Whitehall – the focal point of the UK’s annual remembrance ceremonies.
There has been unhappiness in Government and among Conservative MPs at images of noisy, disruptive protests, where there have been instances of anti-semitism and praise for Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organisation – even though there’s no suggestion that these are widespread views among those calling for an end to violence in Gaza.
But the home secretary is also tapping into deeper unhappiness on the right of the party with the way the police responded to Black Lives Matter marches in 2020, and Just Stop Oil protests more recently.
Braverman seems to take a lot of her cues from the so-called “culture war” online battlegrounds, even if the issues are more familiar to American politics than British.
As things stand – and it’s always risky to commit words to print on days like this at Westminster, because things change fast – the Prime Minister has “full confidence” in Suella Braverman.
That’s despite the article not being cleared by Number 10, and containing “words that the PM would not use”.
Presumably those words relate to a confusing comparison Braverman makes in her article between Islamist extremism and marches in Northern Ireland that’s causing offence.
But the PM’s official spokesman wouldn’t be drawn on whether Sunak agreed with her central criticism of the Met, and the policing of protests.
There’s a view that the home secretary’s outbursts are in fact useful to Rishi Sunak – they satisfy the right of his party and its membership, while giving him the political space to be more moderate himself. If Braverman is saying these things, the Prime Minister doesn’t have to, goes the thinking.
Certainly, keeping the right of the Conservative Party happy was the reason why Sunak put Braverman back in the post that she was originally appointed to by Liz Truss – even though she had to swiftly resign over a leaking row. But that feels like a dozen scandals ago.
In her attack on the Metropolitan Police, the home secretary may even be providing cover for Sunak right now. It was the Prime Minister who first took on the Met over pro-Palestinian protests, hauling in chief constable Sir Mark Rowley for a meeting to tell him that the march planned for Armistice Day should be banned.
Sir Mark told the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon that there were no grounds to ban the Armistice Day march, so he couldn’t and wouldn’t. There remains, after all, a right to free assembly in this country. The Prime Minister blinked, despite issuing a threat to hold the Met “accountable” for how Saturday’s protests unfold.
That said, if there is a strategy behind Number 10’s handling of the home secretary, perhaps it’s run out of road. It looks like the Prime Minister isn’t in control of his own Cabinet, to put it mildly.
And rather than providing Sunak cover on the right, she risks overshadowing him completely: the regular survey of Tory members by the influential website Conservative Home has Braverman at fifth, on +43.5% approval. The Prime Minister is on a far less healthly +7.1%.
Figures like that make Braverman a strong contender for a leadership race that would surely follow a big defeat for the Tories in next year’s general election.
With the Tories trailing badly in the polls, that leadership election may be starting early.
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