The Suella Braverman Scandal How Rishi Sunak has Quickly Traded ‘Integrity’ for Power
The new Prime Minister’s deal with the disgraced Home Secretary gives the lie to claims he is making a clean break from the Truss and Johnson eras, writes Adam Bienkov
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“This Government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”, said Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, as he promised to repair the many “mistakes” made by his predecessors. “Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”
Within hours, this pledge was in tatters after he appointed a series of disgraced former ministers who had just happened to help him become Prime Minister.
These included Gavin Williamson, who was ousted by Theresa May, after being accused of leaking national security secrets; and Robert Jenrick, who was entangled in a sleaze scandal involving the newspaper mogul and former pornographer Richard Desmond.
But it was the appointment of his new Home Secretary Suella Braverman that appears to have torpedoed any hopes that Sunak will usher in a new era of integrity in government.
Braverman was appointed by the Prime Minster just six days after being sacked from the same job for breaking the Ministerial Code. Her departure came after it emerged that she had shared confidential government information with a backbench Conservative MP and a member of the public.
Since reappointing Braverman, Sunak and his spokespeople have implied that this was an isolated “mistake” for which she should now be forgiven. However, multiple reports confirm that she is, in fact, the subject of a series of allegations of similar behaviour.
Former Conservative party Chair Jake Berry revealed to Talk TV on Wednesday that she has been accused of “multiple breaches” of the Ministerial Code, with the Daily Mail also reporting that she was among the subjects of a separate security probe by MI5. As a result, The Times has reported that she will now receive specific training from the very security services she is now in charge of overseeing on how to deal with confidential information in the future.
Needless to say, none of this is likely to instil confidence in her ongoing “integrity” as a minister. Tellingly, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister on Wednesday repeatedly refused to say whether Braverman will be given full security clearance at the Home Office, saying only that she would have the “requisite clearance to do the role”.
The timing of Braverman’s return, just days after her endorsement of Sunak as Conservative Leader, has led to allegations by Labour Leader Keir Starmer of a “grubby deal” being made between the two. A report by Bloomberg appears to confirm that just such a deal was struck between them last weekend.
It remains unclear whether Braverman will be able to survive this scandal. Her abrasive manner and last-minute abandonment of Boris Johnson in the leadership contest, means she is now a big target for opponents both inside and outside of the Government. Her dash from the House of Commons chamber on Wednesday afternoon, just seconds before she was due to be asked about the scandal, suggests that she is also unable to face up to the growing questions being levelled against her.
But whether or not Sunak ultimately chooses to abandon his Home Secretary, his pledge to usher in a new era of integrity and accountability appears to be over. Far from making a clean break from the cronyism and incompetence of the Johnson and Liz Truss eras, Sunak’s Government already seems to be following a painfully similar path.
Meet the New Boss – Same as the Old Boss?
In some respects, this is all unsurprising for the simple reason that Sunak’s new Government is barely distinguishable from its predecessors.
For all the understandable excitement about him being the first British-Asian man to become Prime Minister, Sunak’s administration is about as far from being a radical departure from its predecessors as it is possible to be.
In fact, almost all of the great offices of state remain filled with exactly the same ministers as under Truss and many older faces from the Johnson era have also been brought back to the frontline. Despite the many plaudits for what his appointment says about diversity in the UK, his Cabinet is also overwhelmingly filled with similarly high levels of white men who went to private school and Oxbridge as its predecessors.
And for all his talk of being laser-focused on what’s best for the country, the overwhelming purpose of Sunak’s new Cabinet appears to have been buying-off as many of the potentially threatening factions of the Conservative Party as he could.
His top team of advisors also appears to be little more than a greatest hits of Conservative think tanks and campaign groups, with representatives from the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange mingling with members of the Vote Leave campaign and allies of the former Chancellor George Osborne.
That is not to say there is no difference at all between Sunak and his predecessors. While Truss was largely a creature of the fringe hard-right libertarian think tanks of Tufton Street, Sunak is significantly closer to the more mainstream Conservative establishment.
Indeed, it is his closeness to the ‘officer class’ of the party which ultimately helped propel him to power. When Johnson jetted back from his Caribbean retreat in a desperate bid to retake Downing Street, it was the endorsements from Conservative grandees, both inside the party and within Fleet Street, which were so instrumental in convincing MPs to stitch up the contest in favour of their former Chancellor.
To his credit, Sunak is showing a few signs of making symbolic breaks with the disastrous Truss era. His pledge to reinstate the fracking ban is welcome, if unsurprising. The former Prime Minister’s plan to “get fracking” was hugely unpopular with Conservative MPs and realistically had very little chance of ever contributing significantly to UK energy supplies, even if it was able to overcome the massive public opposition to it. His pragmatism on taxation is also likely to mean that spending cuts will be less severe than they would have been had Truss remained in office.
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But while drawing such distinctions is important, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that Sunak himself is one of the main architects of the current mess we find ourselves in.
Far from being a major break from the past, the Prime Minister is in most respects a continuation of it. An early supporter of both Brexit and Boris Johnson, Sunak had a key role in overseeing the economic and political disasters which have led us to the high political farce of recent weeks.
While he claims to be restoring “integrity” to Government, it is just months since he himself was fined by police for attending a party inside Downing Street during lockdown after previously denying having done so. His belated ‘principled’ withdrawal of support from Johnson last summer also only came at the point when it finally appeared possible to remove and replace him.
With Parliament about to start hearings on whether Johnson misled the House of Commons over the ‘Partygate’ affair, similar questions are already being asked about whether Sunak also misled the Commons this week about Braverman.
It’s not just the public who have been misled by Sunak, but his own party members and supporters as well. On Wednesday, his spokespeople failed to commit to several key pledges made during his leadership campaign. Asked repeatedly to say that he stands by all the promises in the Conservative Party’s 2019 Manifesto, his press secretary would say only that he stands by “the promise of the manifesto”. Asked by Byline Times to explain what this meant, they declined to do so.
Upon entering office this week, the Prime Minister had a narrow window of opportunity in which he could move beyond the calamitous period we have just witnessed. With goodwill, both at home and abroad, he had a chance to restore public faith in the Government and the institutions which support it.
All of the events of the past few days suggest that this is a not an opportunity he will be willing to take.