It seemed that Suella Braverman was condemned to repeat the same cycle as her predecessor at the Home Office. Priti Patel, once adored by grassroots Conservatives for her “toughness” on crime and immigration, lost their affections over small boats that started arriving on the Kent coast.
By the time of the first Tory leadership election last year, she wasn’t even a candidate, and when Liz Truss became prime minister, Patel proved so dispensable that she went straight to the backbenches.
Braverman, who did stand (she came sixth), seemed to have cornered enough of the anti-immigration, anti-“wokerati” market among Tory members to have booked her place as Patel’s replacement. So much so that, when Truss folded her tent after seven weeks and Rishi Sunak tried to buy off every Tory faction to make his unity cabinet, Braverman was recalled from her five days in the political sin bin where she had been sent for breaking the ministerial code.
Yet it seemed likely that Braverman would follow the same trajectory of adulation and disappointment that Patel had traced. The Conservative Home monthly survey of party members, which is watched closely by cabinet ministers even though it is a self-selected and unweighted sample, put her fourth in the cabinet league table in September.
The following month she was down to fifth from bottom – presumably partly reflecting the problem of being sacked and reinstated after sending confidential documents from her personal email.
Since then, her reputation among the party faithful recovered somewhat, and she gained mid-table respectability. I assumed that was as high as her reputation would go among party members, because the thinness of her rhetoric on asylum seekers would become exposed. In any case, it is not as if she is a strong communicator, as her TV interviews yesterday showed.
But it would seem that Tory members like her “tough” talk on small boats, and her visit to Rwanda two weeks ago, even if they are a long way from seeing any results from either. She has shot back up to fourth place in the latest Conservative Home survey, up from eighth place the month before. She is now more popular with the grassroots members than any except Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, Kemi Badenoch, the trade secretary, and James Cleverly, the foreign secretary. She is more popular than Sunak himself, in sixth place (behind Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons), although his rating, too, has recovered.
The survey was taken before the latest announcement on tackling grooming gangs, which mostly consisted of imposing a probably counterproductive legal duty on professionals working with children to report suspicions of sex abuse.
But there is no doubt that this is the kind of rhetoric that party members like, and because Braverman has not been home secretary for long, they seem surprisingly indulgent about the likelihood that she will have little to show for any of it by the time of the general election.
Sunak’s gamble is that he, and Braverman, will have made enough progress in slowing the small boats, in clearing the backlog of asylum applications, and in removing failed applicants, that the voters will give him credit for trying – and that they will judge that he is likely to try harder than a government led by Keir Starmer.
I doubt that this will satisfy party members, though, and I think that Patel’s law of inevitable disappointment will come into play long before the Conservative Party has to choose a new leader – which is the future where Braverman’s eyes seem firmly fixed.
But in the meantime, I fear that Braverman’s rise up the cabinet popularity rankings means that we will hear a lot more of the unpleasant rhetoric that she has indulged in recently. She thinks it is working – not in regaining control of our immigration system, but in promoting her own ambition.
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