British Foreign Secretary David Cameron with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street, November 13, 2023
IN A DIWALI ADDRESS to the British Indian diaspora in London this week, S Jaishankar skirted around the latest British political chaos with a delicate smile. It had been good of Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, to receive him at such a busy time in Westminster, he said, to knowing hoots from the assembled crowd in Westminster Hall, a stone’s throw from Britain’s Gothic parliament building. It had also been nice of his new British counterpart to meet him, Jaishankar added, even before David Cameron, the former prime minister and incoming foreign secretary, had made it to his new Whitehall department.
India’s external affairs minister then spoke admiringly of the contemporary British-Indian relationship, which he described as forward-looking and business-like. Still, the point had been made. It will be a long time before Indian officialdom ceases to derive a special small pleasure from Britain embarrassing itself. Not even a surfeit of British political chaos since the calamitous Brexit vote of 2016—including the fall and rise of Cameron, the clownish Boris Johnson, half-crazed Liz Truss and five Conservative prime ministers in all—could diminish the schadenfreude.
By comparison, this week’s upheaval in London, in the form of a major reshuffle of Sunak’s cabinet precipitated in part by street violence allegedly incited by one of its senior members, was relatively small potatoes. Sunak sacked his home secretary, Suella Braverman, a fire-breathing rightwinger who had openly defied him. He also shuffled several other big portfolios, including health, defence and the No 2 job at the Treasury, thereby creating the vacancy at the Foreign Office filled—in by far the reshuffle’s most surprising detail—by Cameron. A handful of junior ministers, including George Freeman, a science minister, and Jeremy Quin, the paymaster general, resigned from the government to try to shore up their constituency support. Westminster watchers were titillated by all this. It would be surprising if most British voters gave it a second thought. In the flux, churn and occasional bloodletting that has become synonymous with post-Brexit Conservative government, such tumult is par-for-the-course.
Still, this latest rendition could be significant for Sunak. The gawky and cerebral Conservative prime minister (and son-in-law of NR Narayana Murthy) entered 10 Downing Street a year ago with a mandate to restore order after the brief calamity of Liz Truss and poly-scandals of Johnson. Merely by being blandly normal, he has to some degree succeeded. Almost anyone, to be fair, could seem like a competent leader compared to his immediate predecessors. Truss, a strangely robotic politician, breezed in, crashed the pound with a deficit-ballooning budget, and was out in a month.
Cameron led the campaign against Brexit, even though his decision to hold the referendum was ultimately to blame for it. Was this the start of a significant centrist pivot by Sunak? Probably not. Moderate voters are deserting his party in droves, so it is not hard to see why he might want to reassure them. The intriguing appointment of Cameron was decried by the right as ideologically unsound
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Johnson’s clown-show antics in No 10, lest anyone forget them, are currently being memorialised in a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of Covid-19. Highlights have included revelations that, at the height of public fear about the disease, Johnson told officials he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order a lockdown. The then prime minister also mooted having himself injected with Covid-19 on television in order to allay those public fears. (Johnson was later hospitalised with and almost died of Covid-19, after contracting the virus naturally.) Even if Sunak has restored a degree of sanity to the government, however, he appears to have done nothing to restore his party’s dire fortunes.
When he took the helm, the Conservatives trailed the opposition Labour party in the polls by a 20-point margin. They still do. And a series of crushing defeats in by-elections, often sparked by embarrassing Tory misbehaviour, has confirmed the impression that, after 13 years of Tory rule, British voters have had enough. Last month saw by-elections in the erstwhile Conservative safe seats of Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. The first was occasioned after the former Tory MP, a Johnson super-fan and erotic novelist called Nadine Dorries, announced her resignation with a furious attack on Sunak, accusing the prime minister of having “squandered the goodwill of the nation”. In the resulting by-election, Labour set a new all-time record by overturning a 24,000-vote Conservative majority.
The poll in Tamworth was called after its former Tory representative, Chris Pincher, was suspended from parliament for groping two men in a drunken rampage at the Carlton Club. The fact that Johnson had promoted Pincher despite having been informed of his debauchery (then lied about having been informed about it, natch) was one of the last scandals of his premiership. (“Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” Johnson was alleged to have quipped, before he signed off on Pincher’s appointment as the government’s deputy chief whip.) Labour won in Tamworth, too, after turning over another 20,000-vote Tory majority, in what was the second-biggest single-seat swing since 1945. It was the fourth consecutive by-election swing from the Tories to Labour of more than 20 percentage points.
Such results suggest Sunak and his party are on course for a wipe-out in the general election due by January 2025. Despite Labour’s strong and consistent lead in the polls, many Tories had previously trusted that the various advantages their party enjoys in Britain’s electoral system would shield them from defeat. Where Labour’s support is unhelpfully concentrated among the immigrants and affluent graduates of London and a few other cities, the Tory vote is spread efficiently and widely across the English suburbs and shires. Similarly, Labour is especially popular with younger Britons—but most of them don’t vote, unlike the Tories’ aged loyalists. The scale of the Tories recent losses makes such advantages seem almost immaterial, however. Unless Sunak can close Labour’s enormous polling lead, he is heading for electoral defeat.
Sunak had no choice but to sack Braverman. She was seriously undermining his authority, and not only by defying him. She also appeared to be permanently campaigning to be the rightwing’s preferred candidate to succeed him. The broader cabinet reshuffle that her sacking sparked seemed to many like an overdue effort by Sunak to spike the right’s guns
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His recent measures should be viewed as an increasingly desperate effort to avoid that eventuality. First, at the party’s annual conference last month, Sunak attempted to re-launch himself to the somnambulant oldsters and teenage nationalists who dominate the Conservative membership as a change leader. “I will lead in a different way, because that is the only way to create the sort of change in our politics and in our country that we all desperately want to see.” Unfortunately, this was not a plausible message. Sunak is a clever and ambitious technocrat. He has a commendable interest in improving Britain’s wretched public finances. But he is not obviously possessed of original thought, charisma or a clear sense of where he would like to take the country. The idea of him as a force for change would be hard to accept even if he were not the prime minister of a party that has been in power for 13 years.
THE BIG IDEAS Sunak signalled to illustrate his change-makingness were, duly, mere commitments to roll back some of his Tory predecessors’ pet schemes: including an expensive high-speed rail project launched by Cameron and decarbonisation targets instituted under Johnson. Nothing could have been better designed to needle his party’s increasingly obvious divisions, another symptom of Tory decline.
Sunak’s row with Braverman provided a particularly stark illustration of the feuding. The former home secretary is another of the peculiar politicians that have prospered, then flamed out, under post-Brexit Toryism. In her case, it is hard to think of a more contradictory figure. A Francophone, who studied European law at the Sorbonne, the 43-year-old is a fiercely ideological Eurosceptic and Brexiteer. A daughter of immigrants—whose ethnic-Indian parents came to Britain via Kenya and Mauritius—Braverman (née Fernandes) has spewed more hostility towards immigrants than perhaps any recent frontline minister. She was first forced to resign after a previous stint as home minister under Truss, after Braverman was found to have sent an official document from her personal email account, a serious offence. Sunak then swiftly reappointed her in an effort to placate her admirers on the Tory right. She repaid him with no end of trouble. Over the past year she has caused rows with and against the media, immigrant groups, the police, multiculturalism, homeless people, and “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”.
With relish, she set about repelling the thousands of asylum-seekers, typically bedraggled Albanians and Afghans, arriving across the English Channel by dinghy. She described them as an “invasion” and said it would be her “dream” to see them deported to Rwanda. The central African country had agreed, for a fat fee, to accept several hundred of these asylum-seekers a year—a scheme that the Tory government hoped would deter many thousands more from crossing the Channel. Yet it was hard to find much evidence of Braverman achieving anything, despite her tirades.
The Rwanda scheme was snarled up in the courts. The boats kept coming. But the Tory right—which increasingly values performance over substance—kept applauding her, so she kept upping the ante. In recent weeks, Braverman described the tented hovels of London’s homeless as “a lifestyle choice”. She accused pro-Palestinian protesters of taking part in “hate marches”. With another protest planned in central London on November 11—Britain’s annual Day of Remembrance for its war dead—she penned a newspaper column accusing the police of being biased towards leftie pro-Palestinians. The prime minister’s office demanded changes to the piece; Braverman ignored it and published the piece. No thanks to her alleged incitement, the protest was then duly marred by a battle between far-right hooligans, who showed up to disrupt it, and the police.
Braverman accused pro-Palestinian protesters of taking part in ‘hate marches’. With another protest planned in London on November 11—Britain’s day of remembrance for its war dead—she penned a column accusing the police of bias towards leftie pro-Palestinians
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Sunak had no choice but to sack her. She was seriously undermining his authority, and not only by defying him. She also appeared to be permanently campaigning to be the rightwing’s preferred candidate to succeed him. The broader cabinet reshuffle, elegantly referred to by Jaishankar, that her sacking sparked seemed to many like an overdue effort by Sunak to spike the right’s guns. Indeed, there was some evidence for this. Victoria Atkins, the new health secretary, is a centrist and former opponent of Brexit. Cameron, to whom Sunak also awarded a seat in the House of Lords, given that he no longer holds a parliamentary seat, led the campaign against Brexit (even though his decision to hold the referendum was ultimately to blame for it). Was this the start of a significant centrist pivot by Sunak?
Probably not. Moderate voters are deserting his party in droves, so it is not hard to see why he might want to reassure them. But Sunak will find that hard, in part because of his own strong association with Brexit, which most centrists and a growing majority of all voters regret. And also because his party’s raucous factions will not allow it. A chorus of Tory dissent now greets the prime minister’s every move.
Sunak’s intriguing appointment of Cameron was decried by the right as ideologically unsound. Though the former prime minister holds standard Thatcherite views on economics and was unwittingly responsible for Brexit, the right cannot forget his former efforts to curry favour with China and pro-EU campaigning. Meanwhile, Braverman responded to her sacking with a torrent of abuse. She accused Sunak of “betrayal”, “wishful thinking”, and ducking the tough measures she claimed to have demanded to prevent immigration. Making matters worse for Sunak, on November 16 Britain’s highest court conclusively ruled against the Rwanda scheme, bringing yet more Tory attention to his failure on this issue.
A shrewd politician, sensing the near impossibility of controlling immigration, which successive governments have failed to do, would have looked for a less unforgiving issue to harp on. But Sunak dug in. He vowed to change the law in order to get around legal objections to the Rwanda scheme. Perhaps he will be vindicated. Certainly, if Sunak can “stop the boats” that brought around 46,000 asylum-seekers to Britain last year, it would be a coup. But if he fails, which seems likelier, it will simply seem that he was not, after all, a shrewd politician.