Bringing back ‘leaky Su’ Braverman: a bold move by Sunak, or a reckless gamble?

The prime minister was aiming for discipline and unity in his new cabinet. So why did he allow the controversial home secretary to return days after quitting?

To describe her reception as underwhelming would be to downplay the despondency that spread throughout the Home Office when news broke that Suella Braverman was coming back. “It was like that feeling you get as a football fan after a long VAR check that disallows a goal,” said one official.

Six days earlier it had been difficult for Home Office staff to hide their glee when Braverman resigned as home secretary for leaking sensitive government information to a Tory MP via her personal email address. “Relief was the overriding sentiment when she went,” said one official. In her place Liz Truss had quickly appointed the altogether less outspoken figure of Grant Shapps, and calm seemed to have been restored for the time being.

But things were moving at a scorching pace as the crisis at the top of the Tory party reached new levels of farce. When Truss quit on Thursday 20 October after only seven weeks in the job – having already lost a chancellor and a home secretary – another leadership contest was triggered.

Tory MPs frantically tried to calculate where their own, and their party’s, best interests now lay. Importantly, Braverman, seen as a key figure on the ardently pro-Brexit, anti-immigration, anti-woke right of the party, threw her support behind Rishi Sunak, rather than Boris Johnson. Seeing his chance slipping away, Johnson, back from the Caribbean to try his luck at a comeback, pulled out on the Sunday evening. The next day Penny Mordaunt followed suit. Sunak – now home and dry – met the king on Tuesday last week, and was invited to form a government. Hours later Braverman, apparently as a reward for backing Sunak, took the new prime minister’s call. She was back as home secretary – despite the murky circumstances of her recent exit and amid talk of deals with the new PM.

This weekend, within the 35,000-strong Home Office workforce, the talk is not only of Braverman’s first, uneasy, 44-day tenure. It is also about how long her second stint can last. The atmosphere is said to be sour among staff, with talk of double standards, not to mention Braverman’s inevitable struggles last time round to get to grips with such a vast, sprawling department.

“No civil servant would be allowed to keep their job doing what she did and would certainly lose their security clearance,” a senior Home Office official said. These same staff know of four cases in which colleagues had been found, like Braverman, to have leaked documents externally. Each faced a gross misconduct charge and had their security clearances revoked. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said: “How can staff in her department have any confidence in management when she brazenly flouts the rules herself?”

Police officer stands guard as crowded boat reaches beach
Migrants disembark from a lifeboat at Dungeness after they were picked up at sea while attempting to cross the Channel. Suella Braverman has been outspoken about her wish to reduce immigration. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Braverman not only received zero censure for sending material to her friend and close political ally John Hayes MPbut was rewarded with another go at one of the great offices of state.

With her feet barely back under the desk, and with the Whitehall mood hostile, stories quickly emerged that Braverman had also been investigated over the previous leak of a story involving MI5 and the BBC when she was attorney general. Were officials now leaking in revenge?

As well as being notoriously outspoken on issues including immigration and the government’s Rwanda policy, Brexit and benefits claimants, Braverman has already earned the nickname “leaky Su” for her first period as home secretary. In particular, concerns had grown among officials over a series of secretive meetings that she had arranged with Hayes at 2 Marsham Street, the Home Office HQ.

“There’s a dynamic around her leaking stuff. Civil servants had been raising concerns about her meetings with that backbencher [Hayes]. She was having them at Marsham Street,” a senior source told the Observer. The worry was that if Braverman could leak sensitive documents to Hayes, where would it end? And where might classified information end up?

The arrival of Sunak as Truss’s replacement, after perhaps the most chaotic and economically disastrous premiership ever, is supposed to represent a fresh start for the Conservative government and for the country.

When Sunak stood outside No 10 on Tuesday, having just been to Buckingham Palace, the impression he wanted to convey was that of serious, honest endeavour at a time of crisis. Jeremy Hunt would be kept on as chancellor, having successfully undone almost every part of Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget.

But the reset is intended to be about more than just the economy. The message had also to be about restoration of standards and competence too.

“This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. Trust is earned and I will earn yours,” said Sunak before he entered No 10.

However, after more than 12 years in government, with Brexit having divided the Tory party irreparably over Europe, and with three prime ministers in charge over the past three months alone, the idea that unity could suddenly be imposed on so many rival factions, enmities and bruised egos was always going to be unrealistic.

Sunak wanted his new top team of ministers to be known and seen as a “unity cabinet”. He let it be known that he wanted government to become boring for a period while the economic errors of Truss were put right and the wider challenges of rising inflation, energy prices and the cost of living addressed.

Sunak at Poole’s bedside, wearing a mask
Rishi Sunak speaks to Catherine Poole, a patient at Croydon University hospital, days after becoming prime minister. She told him to pay NHS staff more. Photograph: Leon Neal/WPA Pool/Getty Images

But at Westminster the Sunak cabinet that emerged last week was quickly seen and judged for what it was – as much a pragmatic balancing act, giving the right, left and centre their people in top positions to minimise the potential for trouble, as it was about matching abilities to tasks and remits, and meeting the challenges of the day.

“It was a cobbling together of lots of people who had identities and interests in different wings of the party, largely to keep them and their acolytes quiet,” remarked one senior Tory MP.

“So Suella was retained to keep the right quiet and the European Research Group, not just to reward her. [Sunak] kept Thérèse Coffey and stuck her at environment to keep the Truss lot happy and look like it was a big tent and that there was no bitterness.”

Perhaps partly to appease followers of Boris Johnson, Ben Wallace remained at the Ministry of Defence while Nadhim Zahawi, who had flipped from Johnson to support Sunak very much at the last minute and only after Johnson had withdrawn, got the post of party chairman.

A former Tory minister put it this way: “You look at that cabinet and you can see what Rishi felt he had to do, not what he wanted to do.”

Another MP added: “The appointment of Suella above all shows the fragility of each of the pillars he is trying to build stability on. Any one of them can come crashing down at any point.”

Even before Sunak went to the palace, there were visible indications of the kind of problems the new prime minister would face. On Tuesday, having been announced as the winner of the Tory leadership contest, Sunak was cheered by MPs outside Conservative headquarters. It was widely noticed amid the hugs and kisses that he brushed past an expectant Matt Hancock, a health secretary in Johnson’s government, without so much as a glance.

Less remarked on was a somewhat cursory handshake that Sunak offered to Jake Berry, the Tory party chairman under Truss, who has long been close to Johnson. The next day Berry was one of a dozen cabinet minister sacked by Sunak, and the day after that he was making waves about Braverman’s reappointment, questioning the account given by Sunak about the home secretary’s resignation.

Berry maintained that her resignation had come about after the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, had confronted Braverman about the leaked email to Hayes, rather than Braverman ’fessing up herself. Berry also said that Braverman had committed “multiple breaches of the ministerial code”.

Other senior Tories appeared to raise questions about Braverman’s reappointment. Caroline Nokes, who chairs the Commons women and equalities committee, said there were “big questions hanging over this whole issue”, adding that “to be frank I would like to see them cleared up so that the home secretary can get on with her job”. It was hardly the disciplined, unified start Sunak had wanted as questions were being raised about the ability of his home secretary to avoid a second resignation in a fortnight.

If the Braverman case had blown up so quickly, MPs and Tory commentators asked, what chance was there of trouble on other fronts? Nonetheless, Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, said that despite the Braverman issue he remained hopeful: “The question now is whether the culture of dissent and division in the Conservative party runs so deep as to overwhelm Rishi Sunak. The early signs for him are quite good but the experience of recent months has been deeply damaging.”

View of a COP27 sign on road lined with palm trees
Sunak has come under fire from within his own party over his decision not to attend Cop27. Photograph: Sayed Sheasha/Reuters

The truth is, however, that as Sunak and Hunt prepare for the crucial autumn statement on 17 November, the potential for more splits to break out publicly is almost limitless. MPs representing northern seats are demanding guarantees on infrastructure projects just as Sunak and Hunt talk about the need for brutal spending cuts. A party that cheered on Truss only a few weeks ago for committing to tax cuts is now heading for tax rises, which will anger many on the right. Pledges to increase defence spending are being called into question, as is the future of the international aid budget. Can budgets for health, welfare and education be protected – and if so, how? – and what is the future of the pensions triple lock? All are questions exercising Tory MPs as Sunak tries to maintain unity.

Even Sunak’s decision not to attend the Cop27 climate summit next month has sparked criticism from supporters of Boris Johnson. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary who led calls for Johnson to return as leader as the Truss government fell apart, said that the prime minister was wrong not to go.

“Global warming is the biggest crisis facing our planet and net zero creates many 100s of jobs which is good for the economy,” she tweeted. She called the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, which took place under Johnson’s premiership, “the most successful ever”.

Back at the Home Office, officials seem doubtful that Braverman will survive long. One senior civil servant described the transition from Priti Patel to Braverman as “frying pan to fire”. Insiders anticipate a fresh wave of talent leaving a department that haemorrhaged able staff under Patel.

Last month Braverman marked her arrival with an upbeat call to arms to civil servants at the Home Office. Setting out her broad aims – tackling crime, reinforcing borders – she even told staff how to relax out of work (her suggestion was to watch ITV’s Love Island).

There was no bravado last week. Instead, a dry, functional round-robin email was sent on Tuesday morning, hours after Sunak met the king. Signed by Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary, and Tricia Hayes, second permanent secretary, the email thanked Grant Shapps for his briefest of tenures and added: “Please join us in welcoming the home secretary back to the department and we look forward to working with her in delivering the government’s priorities.”

Most pressing in her overflowing in-tray is halting Channel crossings, running at record levels and showing no sign of abating.

Braverman has already vowed to stop all crossings. Senior Home Office asylum officials – backed by experts – accept that without the UK offering genuine safe passage to refugees it’s “pie in the sky stuff”.

“It’s just nonsense, completely undoable,” said a veteran official.

If the atmosphere in the Home Office is mirrored elsewhere in Whitehall in the coming weeks and months, then Sunak’s ambition to restore unity to the Tory party and a sense of professionalism across the government could prove far harder to realise than he had hoped.

Roadworks on the M4, June 2022.
Roadworks on the M4, June 2022. Infrastructure projects could be delayed as the government searches for savings. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex

Five key challenges for Rishi Sunak

Immigration: Having reappointed immigration hawk Suella Braverman as home secretary, Sunak now faces a dilemma. The economy will need higher immigration to secure growth and the NHS will also need more staff. However, Braverman still wants to reduce immigration and will fight anything that increases it.

Cop27: The new prime minister has already faced pressure from the UN and international figures over his intention not to attend the upcoming Cop27 climate summit. Downing Street has said he is too focused on the government’s economic plans, but it looks set to be an early diplomatic faux pas.

The NHS: There are serious concerns about the health service – and with no money lying around, there are no obvious ways to boost funding. Meanwhile, new chancellor Jeremy Hunt is a former health secretary and campaigned for the NHS as health select committee chair.

The economy: Sunak’s premiership is likely to be defined by the choices he makes in the medium-term fiscal plan next month. He faces the unenviable task of picking a combination of tax rises and spending cuts that will restore faith in Britain’s economy – but it will be a hard political sell, even to his own MPs.

‘Red wall’ investment: Red wall Conservative MPs have already been raising concerns that promised new roads and other infrastructure projects will be dropped or delayed as the government searches for savings. Any attempt to pause investment funding will cause major problems among MPs who hold seats in traditionally Labour areas.


Mark Townsend and Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

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