Monday 13 November 2023

The Return of Dave

Who saw that coming? No sooner were the lobby hacks getting over the expected demise of Suella Braverman than Rishi Sunak pulls off the unexpected: David Cameron enters into Downing Street and, following a hasty ennoblement, is appointed Foreign Secretary. I don't want to call it a master stroke, but in the game of politics no one saw it coming. We've gone from a day where Labour would have made hay over Braverman's departure to one where the headlines were occupied by Dave's return to frontline politics. Sunak has short circuited the "weak, weak, weak taunts and his appearance of buckling under political pressure. Which is just as well because the fates are not kind to Prime Ministers who hand active, mobilised social movements a ministerial scalp.

Getting rid of Braverman immediately posed the question: who now? As rightly forecasted, the honour of being her replacement and the sixth Home Secretary since 2016 (seven if you count Braverman twice) fell to James Cleverly. At the Foreign Office, he's burnished his reputation as a dependable pair of hands. Someone not given to grand standing and has loyally discharged Britain's traditional interests without any qualms. For Sunak, he's the natural counter to Braverman who, hired to say the unsayable, inevitably went off piste and threatened to bury the Tory ski resort under a political avalanche. With a reputation for seriousness, and as someone who has spoken sensitively and positively about his mixed race background, it is hoped Cleverly can repair the government's fraught relationship with the police and start undoing the damage left by his predecessor.

As many have pointed out, bringing Dave back into the fold after a
barely-reported scandal and, more recently, "working closely" with a UK-China investment firm shows up a paucity of talent on the Tory benches. An observation that won't find any quarrel round these parts. But within the terms of briefcase Toryism, Dave works on three counts. He is experienced, is well known among the foreign policy establishments of the States That Matter (though not always positively - see his frequent and not terribly successful efforts at handbagging the EU), and is a known quantity. He's not about to go rogue and sign Britain up to recognising Palestine. And his administration's extensive love-in with China won't do any harm given how much Sunak is pivoting to East Asia. Second, Dave had the special sauce where a layer of Tory and Tory-curious support was concerned. His slippery PR patter and teflon countenance served him well in office until the Brexit gamble destroyed his career. Might some be attracted back to the party now Sunak has disposed of Braverman's services? And thirdly, most outrageously, at a time of fraught politics and a mass movement against British foreign policy, making Dave a peer give the Foreign Office an extra layer of insulation from democratic accountability. Even Lindsay Hoyle expressed his annoyance. Dave will be taking questions in the Lords while a bag carrier becomes his meat shield in the Commons.

Sunak has won the day by keeping the fall out of Braverman from the main headlines, but is it going to make any difference to Tory prospects? No. Dave destroyed his cache with liberal-inclined Tory voters by delivering a Leave vote in the referendum, and then leaving others to clean up his mess. Nor are right wingers going to look at his return with favour. The never not ridiculous Andrea Jenkyns was hardly full of praise in her no confidence letter. And you can't imagine the Tory base being full of unalloyed enthusiasm, given it was he who "forced" many of them to support UKIP in 2015. He was woke before wokery was a glimmer in the Tory culture warrior's eye.

On the other hand, he reminds plenty of people of how made life worse. The cruelties he oversaw in social security, particularly the humiliations of the work capability assessment and the bedroom tax, the saddling of young people with unsustainable levels of debt, the flatlining of living standards - is it any wonder Dave accelerated the turning of an entire generation against the Tories?

Sunak seems to have realised this as the day wore on. Without any women occupying the four chief offices of state and no obvious right winger front and centre, he has belatedly resurrected the miserable career of Esther McVey. Dubbed the "Minister of Common sense" by The Sun, she will now work as a minister-without-portfolio with responsibility for fronting up the government in the media. In other words, someone else who will say the right wing things Sunak is too cowardly to repeat, but doesn't have any power to wreck stuff. Though being white means McVey does not have the same leeway Braverman had in her pronouncements.

In the social media branding accompanying the reshuffle, the Tories said Sunak was "strengthening his team". What this really means is briefcaseism dominates the cabinet more than hitherto. But it's the politics that matters. It doesn't matter who's selling it, be it Dave and his salesman slick, Cleverly and his new found seriousness, or McVey and the inevitable "I'm working class me" routine, no one is biting. Thankfully, the agony might soon be over. Dan Hodges alighted on the number of ministers stepping down voluntarily and how this points to a May election. I hope this is correct. The wipeout of the Tories, so thoroughly and richly deserved, cannot come soon enough.


Zoltan Jorovic said...

Hi Phil, could you explain what you mean by "briefcaseism"?

Graham said...

Coming next - The Return of Tony, because thats just what Palestine needs