Until the formal confirmation of a reshuffle, we won’t know for sure whether Rishi Sunak intends to oust his home secretary Suella Braverman on a charge, effectively, of disobedience.
We do know, however, it has been discussed. And we don’t know the resolution yet. One Whitehall source put the odds as high as 90% on Sunday afternoon that it would be a Monday reshuffle, although – despite the punch prediction – we really don’t know until the PM has formally begun. Nobody should be that sure.
What we are sure about is the arguments behind, rehearsed at the top of government for and against.
First, the case for sacking her. Sunak has spent months having to respond to Braverman’s language. Despite being the most socially conservative prime minister possibly since Margaret Thatcher, the punchier language of his home secretary endlessly left Number 10 in a dilemma.
Whether it was the “hurricane” of migrants, the “lifestyle choice” to be homeless or the criticism of police bias, she looks like he is dancing to her tune. There’s a growing worry among some Tory MPs he must endlessly respond to her, rather than looking strong and his own view dominating.
The fact that they agree on most policy issues may actually put Braverman in a weaker position. On most home affairs topics, the PM agrees on the substance, with the two apparent exceptions being the extent of legal migration the country should allow, and what should happen in the event the government loses the Supreme Court judgment on Wednesday.
There are signs she wants immediate action to override the European Convention on Human Rights – perhaps a pre-election bill; Sunak would be slower, mindful such a move would blow up the Windsor framework he negotiated that normalised relations with the EU. Again a further reason for ditching her now: fail to act at the start of this week and on Wednesday, when the Supreme Court verdict on the Rwanda policy is released, she may resign anyway if they disagree.
The next reason for dismissal would be the jeopardy done to the working relationship with the police, who she accused of bias in The Times article.
The leaked WhatsApp conversation between Tory MPs to Sky News on Friday revealed the depth of division over this specific point – some saw it tantamount to a challenge to democracy; others a necessity for ensuring sensible policing. However it is certainly unusual and unprecedented and for Sunak, far from on brand to have a minister doing such a thing.
Then there is the charge of insubordination. Few members of the public would care about the internal governance process to clear an article for publication – almost no one noticed that the home secretary published words that were not authorised by Number 10. However by sacking her for disobedience by publishing The Times article that Number 10 objected to, rather than the content itself – which the Met themselves said made policing more difficult – they can attempt to avoid accusations that Braverman was simply too tough a home secretary for this PM.
However, there is also a credible case for keeping Braverman as home secretary. There are anecdotal signs that among the voters that matter – 2019 Tory voters who have drifted away – Braverman is a draw. There’s a view that you cannot be too tough on law and order, even if – as Tory MPs Danny Kruger and John Hayes would argue – this means criticism of the police.
Some think it mad to act before the Rwanda decision on Wednesday. If this goes the government’s way and the Supreme Court give the green light, then Sunak and Braverman are united, and coupled with the likely success on meeting the PM’s inflation goal, the sense of trouble could disappear within days.
Then there is the question about how much Tory turmoil Sunak would have to endure. There’s talk of resignations if she goes, and setting himself for a conflict with the right is a challenging dynamic at this stage of the electoral cycle.
We have already had a flavour: some MPs inclined to back Braverman are already attacking chief whip Simon Hart suggesting he’s out of touch with the party and the party chairman Greg Hands for not understanding the realignment in politics – Cameron-style big tent politics is dead, they claim. Some MPs sympathetic to her even believe Sunak is “jealous” of her ability to communicate. Do you want all this amplified through a megaphone?
That is the dynamic Sunak must weigh up. What is more important – being right (on the issues) or being strong (with his team). The civil service are ready for a reshuffle – the packs to brief new ministers were prepared on Tuesday night and Wednesday last week, even before this latest cycle of tumult developed. The grid is free-ish on Monday and Wednesday. But the decision is Sunak’s alone. Which way will he go?