Beyond the Braverman-Sunak civil war gripping Westminster, the prime minister has quietly ushered in an ideological revolution: for the first time since 2016, the right wing of the Conservative Party has found itself in the political wilderness. However, there is increasing tension between Rishi Sunak’s stated electoral message and his new cabinet appointments.
Struggling to find a message
Just one month ago, at the Tory Conference, Sunak lambasted the last 30 years of the political status quo; “30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one”. But now, Sunak has appointed the longest-serving Tory prime minister from that period as his new foreign secretary.
Sunak tried to brand himself as the “change candidate” despite the obvious fact that his party has been in power for the last 13 years. Yet, in a stunning political U-turn, he has scrapped that short-lived campaign message that has failed to resonate with voters, reintroducing the architect of austerity back into the cabinet. This is the same man who publicly criticised Sunak’s decision to cut the Manchester leg of HS2 as “the wrong one”, stating that he will “regret this decision and in years to come I suspect many will look back at today’s announcement and wonder how this once-in-a-generation opportunity was lost”. Political memory fades quickly, but have Cameron and Sunak really patched up their differences in a mere month?
Abandoning the ‘Red Wall’?
Suella Braverman, wounded by this reshuffle, is expected to try and shore up support for a leadership bid next year. In her searing resignation letter, Braverman accused Sunak of “manifestly and repeatedly” failing to deliver on his promises; “Someone needs to be honest: your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time”. Meanwhile, MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, co-chairs of the right-wing New Conservatives group, released a statement in the wake of the reshuffle, voicing their concern that “yesterday’s reshuffle indicates a major change in the policy direction of the Government […] deliberately walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power […] in 2019.”
Their fear, of course, is that Sunak is abandoning the so-called “Red Wall” constituencies in favour of the “Blue Wall” seats that are increasingly turned off by the “culture war” style of politics represented by figures such as Suella Braverman. One of those “Red Wall” MPs, Andrea Jenkyns, who won her West Yorkshire constituency of Morley and Outwood from the former Labour Chancellor Ed Balls, publicly submitted a letter of no confidence after the reshuffle. Jenkyns accused Sunak of conducting a “purge” of “the centre-right from his cabinet”, sacking “Suella who was the only person in the cabinet with the balls to speak the truth”.
Sunak’s united team and divided party
Since Sunak came to power last year, he has lost his Tory chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, and another cabinet member, Gavin Williamson, to scandal. His defence secretary, Ben Wallace, resigned to spend more time with his family. In their place, Sunak has been able to elevate key allies such as Oliver Dowden, Claire Coutinho, and Alex Chalk. Sunak may have been an original Brexiter and perhaps the most ideologically right-wing prime minister we have had in recent political memory, but his style of politics simply does not gel with the inflammatory rhetoric of his former home secretary.
The “November Purge”, as the New Conservatives would call it, saw Truss-ally Thérèse Coffey forced out of cabinet and Sunak allies Victoria Atkins and Laura Trott welcomed into the fray. Sunak was not able to choose his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, whom he inherited as a centrist figure of stability from Truss’ botched Mini Budget. Yet, the cumulative effect of these cabinet changes has left Rishi Sunak with a government far more likely to persuade a Surrey seat targeted by the Lib Dems than the voters courted by Boris Johnson in 2019. The “Back to the Future” appointment of the one-nation David Cameron as foreign secretary gives a sense of political stability in an ever more turbulent time. However, many accuse Cameron of being the instigator of this very turbulence with his doomed decision to call a referendum on EU membership and his swift resignation from office.
Nonetheless, accusations of “stirring up hate” are unlikely to be levelled against Suella Braverman’s replacement, James Cleverly, a popular statesman who certainly did not want the political hot potato that is the office of home secretary. While foreign secretaries usually mount a credible leadership campaign – think Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – home secretaries usually get bogged down in the quagmire of “stopping the boats” and trying to resurrect an increasingly unlikely “Rwanda Plan” which has just been found unlawful by the Supreme Court. Sunak is now safe in his own government, but he has incensed his right-wing backbenchers. The appointment of GB news presenter (and MP) Esther McVey as the “common sense tzar” ,tackling “the scourge of wokery”, was clearly not enough to repair relations with the right.
The future of the Tory party
Looking to 2024, the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly understood what this ideological revolution means for the Tory campaign. Sunak is seeking to hold onto the historic heartlands of the Tory party at the expense of seats he thinks he has already lost to Labour. The Lib Dems reacted to the reshuffle by accusing Sunak of launching a last-ditched effort to save his position: “Bringing a scandal-hit, unelected former Prime Minister […] has the stench of desperation. There is not even the bottom of the barrel left for Sunak to scrape in the Conservative Party.” Forget that the Lib Dems served under Cameron in the coalition years from 2010-2015. They have declared war on their one-time ally.
Sunak is again searching for a message that will stick with the electorate. His reshuffle is incongruent with his ostensible political posturing. The “change candidate” campaign has not worked, nor has having a blatant rival inside the tent; Sunak’s increasingly centrist cabinet squirmed on the waves when asked to justify Braverman’s fiery rhetoric. Sunak’s gamble is that David Cameron will bring experience and appeal on the international stage while offering a sense of familiarity to disaffected 2010 and 2015 Tory voters. Nonetheless, a twice-elected former prime minister of the United Kingdom around the table does put Sunak in an uncomfortable position, especially as Sunak is yet to win his first general election and has disavowed Cameron’s legacy in his quest to do so.