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This week Rishi Sunak is defying mainly the right-wing Tory party. With Jeremy Hunt as chancellor, James Cleverly as home secretary and David Cameron’s surprise return as foreign secretary, the three top offices in his government are now in the hands of centre-right pragmatists, even if they hardly paint the picture of change the prime minister was keen on let in.
The only discernible message from Suella Braverman’s sacking as home secretary and Cameron’s second inauguration is that Sunak has broken with the hardliners and culture warriors who anger moderate Tory voters. The Prime Minister has decided that there is no future in appeasing the most hardline of his hardliners and is now prioritizing what he hopes will be a low-profile implementation over outright failure. Allies say he is removing underperforming ministers and replacing them with those who are likely to be more effective. Sunak has also enriched his team with real and politically non-threatening ministerial experience – although it is questionable whether voters will see a welcome image of serious, stable leadership in Cameron.
But Sunak is moving through political strategies with some speed. Given the predictable backlash among the loudest of his MPs, it remains to be seen how long this will last. The risk is that he has unleashed a determined angry faction that will destabilize his premiership in order to take over after the election. He will also encourage Faragist ReformUK. There is more to come from this reshuffle that may restore some balance, but the Tory right will see this as a major defeat and will not be easily reassured.
Braverman’s dismissal was inevitable and long overdue. Sunak never really wanted her at the head of his cabinet; Her appointment was the dirtiest deal forced on him to secure the leadership. While they disagreed on some issues, including the extent of legal migration and whether or not she should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, the real reasons for the discord lay in her self-indulgent, unfiltered comments and her inability to be a team player functioning, and her ineffective performance as a team player home secretary.
Leadership ambitions are a given at the highest levels, but Braverman’s unpredictable disloyalty is not. She may have believed what she said, but she was also playing a double game when positioning herself for a future leadership election. Braverman spent a year railing against her own ministry, angering moderate Conservatives with her no-holds-barred language, while leaving the hard work of tackling illegal immigration to her minister of state, Robert Jenrick, and Sunak himself. Critics are linking their attacks on police and pro-Palestinian protesters to the far-right violence around the Cenotaph last weekend (although the role of right-wing media in spurring them to action should not be discounted).
Meanwhile, her successor, James Cleverly, as Secretary of State has distinguished himself for his moderate demeanor and his ability to win friends. A long-time Brexit supporter, Cleverly is also a team player, a center-right figure and an opponent of the UK’s withdrawal from the ECtHR.
But it was Cleverly’s replacement that really surprised Westminster. There are pros and cons to Cameron’s return from a rather ignominious exile. On the positive side, he is experienced and reputable, a former world leader with a good understanding of foreign affairs and the diplomatic landscape. He is a better choice than most cabinet alternatives, although one might question why Cleverly himself had to be moved.
In contrast, Cameron’s list of foreign policy achievements is quite short. It is not clear that he has many significant global allies. His Brexit negotiations were disastrous for his cause. He was also seriously damaged by the Greensill lobby scandal. This may partly explain his desire to reach a different final chapter in his political career.
While Cameron is expected to toe the Sunak line, his position on a number of key issues will anger many Tory MPs. He opposed cutting the foreign aid budget; he was a clear opponent of Brexit; He is expected to oppose withdrawal from the ECtHR and, perhaps most controversially among his colleagues, pushed for the policy of closer cooperation with China. As his party became increasingly aggressive, Cameron expanded his ties with Beijing and worked on plans for a British-Chinese investment fund. Sunak’s return also links directly to the austerity era that most Tories would like to forget.
Sunak’s reshuffle has therefore simultaneously improved the leadership of the government and highlighted its core weaknesses. The need to reach back into the past for a foreign minister suggests a prime minister who has no clear political strategy. Decision-making at the top may be improving, but Sunak is likely to spend his final year in office increasingly shaken by events and the destructive forces within his own party. This is a government based on steam.