No matter what your personal politics are, this is an eye-catching rish-uffle. Suella Braverman might have been expecting the sack but she probably wasn’t expecting to have the limelight so immediately taken away from her by (soon-to-be) Lord Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary.
For Braverman, the backbenches beckon where she will be free to spend more time with her party leadership bid. But it will be interesting to see how her parliamentary colleagues react – will her being sacked rather than her resigning on principle hurt the prospects of a future Suella Braverman leadership? Of more concern will be the future make-up of the post-2024 Conservative Parliamentary Party – if the Tory hard right is diminished at the next general election then Braverman will struggle to make the crucial final two candidates that then goes to Tory grassroots members to make the final choice.
For Cameron, the appeal of leaving his shepherd’s hut for the glamour (and hard work) of one of the most important jobs in politics is clear. This appointment is also likely to be time-limited for the next 12 months only which means he can bring an immediate energy to the world stage.
But what does this all mean for the man in No.10 actually making the decisions? If you’re feeling generous, you might describe Sunak’s recent political strategy as confused. In recent weeks we’ve had the following strategies:
- An appeal to the right on small boats and net zero
- ‘Let Rishi be Rishi’
- Sunak as the ‘change’ candidate at the next election (despite 13 years of Tory government)
- And let’s not forget the projection of sensible managerial competence after Truss and Johnson that got Sunak into No.10 in the first place.
Sunak has now shifted his government leftward towards the centre ground. That may well be a sensible political decision – particularly faced with recent catastrophic by-election results in so-called ‘blue wall’ seats in the south and damaging internal focus groups – but this shift comes with considerable political risks, most notably that this strategic uncertainty leaves the public simply not understanding what Sunak stands for nor what his government want to achieve. And on the biggest issue that will decide the next election, combating the cost-of-living, this high-profile political moment says very little to the public.
During his premiership so far Rishi Sunak’s policy positions have been erratic: he’s a long-standing and committed advocate of leaving the EU who is mistrusted by brexiteers; he’s a Thatcherite who wants to cut taxes but who has overseen the highest tax burden in decades; he wants to personify change despite leading a party that has been in government for 13 years; he’s a traditional right-wing Tory whose biggest parliamentary support comes from the One Nation wing of the Conservative Party.
The choice between u-turning on strategy very late and continuing to stubbornly pursue a demonstrably failing existing strategy is no choice at all. Today’s cabinet reshuffle provides some clarity regarding Project Rishi as Sunak will likely go into the next general election projecting the quiet, sensible, non-offensive, managerial competence that got him elected as Conservative Leader in the first place. This might help him to combat Starmer and the Lib Dems in Blue wall seats but has it all come too late and does it speak to people’s financial concerns? Is it enough to boost his approval rating? Sunak may still hold dreams of being the heir to Thatcher but economic, political and electoral reality means that option is no longer open to him. As the old saying goes: “You’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya”.
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