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Rishi Sunak’s latest reset was meant to go so well. On Monday he finally rid himself of his troublesome Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and bumped her from the front pages by appointing none other than David Cameron as his new Foreign Secretary. The euphoria, such as it was, lasted one day.
On Tuesday, Braverman released a damning letter accusing Sunak not only of betrayal and poor leadership, but of formally agreeing to a series of proposals in exchange for her support, upon which he subsequently reneged. Then, on Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivered its long-awaited verdict on the Rwanda deportation policy, the linchpin of Sunak’s Government platform. The policy is unlawful. The Prime Minister has thus defaulted to his normal circumstances: crisis and chaos.
None of this is mere misfortune. It speaks to a series of profound and consistent errors that highlight the Prime Minister’s glaring political deficiencies.
Braverman and the Rwanda policy have become inextricable, and it was Sunak’s decision to resurrect both. In October 2022, when he reached Downing Street, it would have been entirely possible to leave Braverman on the backbenches – to which she had been relegated after resigning from Liz Truss’s cabinet less than a week earlier. Instead, he needed her backing to advance his own interests. He was fully aware of her divisive views and rhetoric and put them both into the service of his own career.
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Jonathan Lis also writes the Political Culture column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times. So for more from him…
Out with the New…
Braverman’s tenure at the Home Office was as dire as it was predictable. From her dehumanising language about an ‘invasion’ and ‘hurricane’ of migrants and advocating the normally white-supremacist ‘Great Replacement Theory’, to repeatedly smearing hundreds of thousands of people protesting for a ceasefire in Gaza as ‘hate marchers’, she debased her office with almost every public statement. In the end, sacking her was not the sign of principle on the part of the Prime Minister, but stupidity.
That, of course, is reflected in the Rwanda policy she came to embody. The policy was always cruel, imperialistic and in the opinion of many experts, racist. It was also an extraordinary waste of political time and public money, given that it was always likely to fail in the courts or take years to implement. It was never even capable of doing what it was supposed to – relieving the UK of its entire cohort of asylum-seekers who had arrived on small boats. The most generous estimate was that the country could accommodate 1,000 refugees – a tiny fraction of the total number of asylum-seekers in the UK.
And yet Sunak made it the entire plank of his premiership, expending political capital he never had. Instead of quietly shelving the plan – begun under his predecessor – he championed it at every opportunity and even made ‘Stop the Boats’ his Government’s de facto slogan. The words have regularly appeared on his Downing Street lectern. Set aside for a moment the cruelty: this has represented an extraordinary lack of wisdom. His press conference on Wednesday afternoon, in which he doubled down on the plan instead of admitting defeat, compounded the misjudgement.
All of which brings us back to Monday’s reshuffle. The bleakly comic appointment of Esther McVey as ‘minister for common sense’ garnered some retweets, as did the installation of a new Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay – a man derided by many of his civil servants at the Department of Health, and who now occupies his sixth senior ministerial post having remained anonymous in each.
In with the Old…
But of course the most eye-catching appointment was to the post of Foreign Secretary: the former Prime Minister, Sunak’s predecessor-but-three, David (now Lord) Cameron.
This was not the mark of statesmanship or party unity, but desperation. In resurrecting Cameron, and momentarily keeping Braverman’s removal off the front pages, Sunak confirmed a number of deeply unhelpful political facts.
First, that there was no suitable candidate for the position in his own parliamentary party. Second, that the much-vaunted appeal to ‘change’ that he had made in his conference speech just six weeks before – in which he scorned the legacy of previous Conservative governments – now lay in ruins. Third, that his Government has neither coherence nor direction.
The most generous commentators affirm that Cameron’s appointment represents a move away from post-Brexit populism to the days of centrist liberalism apparently embodied by the governments of 2010 to 2016. Set aside the fact that Cameron was not a centrist, and his policy of austerity was a voluntary act of sabotage on Britain’s public services and working class. It signifies a handbrake turn in the Conservatives’ electoral strategy less than a year (probably) from a general election.
Everything in the Conservatives’ platform has, for seven years, been focused on policies they think appeal to the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in the north and Midlands: Brexit, levelling up, tough lines on migration, and recently a ‘pro-motorist’ approach against Net Zero. Now Sunak has promoted someone designed to appeal to an entirely different section of the electorate: that of the liberal-leaning ‘Blue Wall’ in the south and west.
The irony is that Cameron doesn’t in all likelihood appeal to those Blue Wall voters anyway. Indeed, it is hard to think which constituency this politician can bring in. He is remembered for one key misadventure, Brexit, which he opposed and then resigned over. Remainers resent him for calling the referendum and Leavers dislike him for fighting it. Even now, it would be ludicrous for him to agree that the UK was right to leave the EU after all – even though that is the foundational position of the current Government.
The strangest part of this is that Cameron has almost no achievements in office to recommend him. His only commonly recognised positive legacy, equal marriage, was revealed to have been a Liberal Democrat initiative. Specifically, in foreign policy – his new brief – he is remembered principally for a disastrous bombing campaign in Libya and the mishandling of the Syrian civil war.
It is also an insult that Cameron occupies his new position in the House of Lords. A Government that already struggles on issues of accountability cannot even offer a Foreign Secretary who answers directly to either MPs or voters.
In reality, Cameron has more in common with Sunak than perhaps either man recognises. The former PM is the embodiment of a vapid, principle-free, self-interested politics that his successors only amplified. Famously, when Cameron was once asked why he wanted to be PM, he replied, ‘because I think I’d be rather good at it’.
Reshuffles are almost never noticed by the public, still less cared about. None of this week’s incidents will improve either the Conservatives’ public standing or polling. In the end, the Government has no ideas and it shows. The only reshuffle the public is now focused on is the Conservatives out of office.