If nothing else, one thing is certain about the United Kingdom’s Conservative government: there’s going to be drama.
The latest Tory meltdown saw a major cabinet shakeup and the end of Suella Braverman’s contentious tenure as home secretary, sparked by rising dissent over her controversial plan to send asylum seekers — of any national origin — to Rwanda. James Cleverly, the former foreign secretary, replaced Braverman and former prime minister David Cameron has stepped into the foreign secretary role.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to fire Braverman and bring back Cameron looks like a pendulum swing away from the small but vocal populist members of his party, of which Braverman is emblematic. More moderate members of the party have pressed Sunak to get rid of her for months, though his doing so has inflamed Braverman, whose support in October’s vote helped him become prime minister.
Though Braverman’s firing seems to be tied to an inflammatory op-ed and subsequent violence around a pro-Palestinian rally held last week, there have been other signals that her position was untenable. While some of her hardline rhetoric and policy proposals were popular with right-wing members of Parliament, members in the centrist faction called for her firing, voicing concerns about her rhetoric, her competence, and her alienation of more moderate voters.
One of Braverman’s most divisive actions was her support for the controversial “Rwanda plan,” which the UK Supreme Court shot down just two days after Sunak fired her. Braverman and other advocates claim the African nation is a safe third country for people to settle in; however, the Court disagreed, ruling that Rwanda’s government could put those migrants at serious risk by deporting them to their home countries, where they could face ethnic, religious, or other forms of persecution.
Though Sunak has promoted the plan and has promised to push it through, whatever it takes, moderate Conservatives see it as divisive and a losing battle.
The Cabinet reshuffle appears to be an attempt to appeal to old-guard, centrist Tories. But Sunak still aims to follow through on the Rwanda plan, an apparent attempt to satisfy multiple competing factions of his fractious party.
The road to Sunak’s surprise Cabinet restructure
This week’s chaos follows a years-long roller coaster for the governing party, set off by an investigation into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s partying during Covid-19 lockdown. Since Johnson’s resignation last June the party has faced crisis after crisis of its own making, as well as plummeting poll numbers entering an election year.
Sunak became prime minister at the end of October 2022, capping a tumultuous year in UK politics and the Tory party specifically, following the Covid-19 pandemic and Johnson’s resignation.
Sunak, who served as chancellor of the exchequer under Johnson and whose resignation from that role in July 2022 delivered a major blow to Johnson’s doomed leadership, was widely seen as a pragmatist who could right the ship after Johnson and his immediate successor, Liz Truss. Sunak faced a series of major challenges after he took on the prime ministership, including economic woes brought on by global inflation and Brexit policy — and exacerbated by Truss’ disastrous (and short-lived) libertarian economic platform, “Trussonomics.”
During the race to replace Johnson, Sunak and Truss both touted their tough stance on immigration, hoping to appeal to socially conservative party members who see immigration as a key issue. Truss and Sunak backed the Rwanda plan, which was first proposed by controversial former Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The plan was deeply controversial from the start, not to mention expensive; the UK government’s agreement with Rwanda to facilitate this plan cost $175 million. However, because of objections from advocacy groups, UK courts, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) no migrant in the UK has ever been transferred to Rwanda.
Still, since taking office, Sunak has made the Rwanda plan and his Stop the Boats initiative a key part of his platform and has promised to push the policy through and even circumvent the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by withdrawing the UK from the court, which issued a temporary stay against the policy in 2022.
The UK high court’s ruling doesn’t mean a policy of removing migrants to a safe third country would be illegal — just that Rwanda isn’t that country, since the court didn’t find sufficient evidence that its immigration system would respect the principle of non-refoulement. Per the court ruling, non-refoulement is an international law concept that “requires that asylum seekers are not returned, directly or indirectly, to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, or they would be at real risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Sunak, however, has doubled down on the Rwanda policy, introducing emergency legislation to have Parliament declare Rwanda a safe country, as well as working on a new treaty with Rwanda to address the court’s concerns that asylum-seekers might be sent back to their home countries.
But Braverman and Sunak’s agreement on immigration policies simply wasn’t enough to dampen her inflammatory, populist positions, which further polarized a divided party. The final straw was an op-ed for Times of London claiming double standards in how the police dealt with pro-Palestinian protesters and demanding “further action” against them, which the prime minister’s office had requested she tone down. Braverman’s defiance of that order triggered Sunak to finally fire her.
During his past year in office Sunak has tried a number of new policies aimed at regaining the Tories’ standing among UK voters, including weakening climate targets and promising harsher sentencing for serious criminal offenses.
But after 13 years in power, during which they instituted severe austerity measures, pushed through Brexit, stunting economic growth, and failed to manage a serious cost-of-living crisis, the party seems to have lost the faith of UK voters and has consistently trailed the opposition Labour party in polls — by around 20 points as of this writing.
Cleverly and Cameron, meanwhile, are much more moderate than Braverman — Cameron resigned as prime minister in 2016 following the Brexit referendum, in which he campaigned to remain — and both will be involved in any potential immigration deals. That’s likely to assuage the moderate wing of the conservative party, but Braverman will remain a vocal member of the backbench— and could even pose a challenge to Sunak in the party’s next leadership contest.
This is the latest act in the Conservatives’ identity crisis
Sunak’s apparent tack to the middle is part of a story that stretches back to Cameron’s initial resignation and the Conservative party’s ideological rift over Brexit. After Cameron’s departure, Theresa May, an experienced member of parliament whose ambivalence about the policy only hastened her own exit, failed to bring about a deal to push Brexit through, leading to Johnson’s populist leadership.
Johnson’s successor Liz Truss attempted to carry that populist torch, appointing Braverman as home secretary and introducing “Trussonomics” with her first Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng last September. As Vox wrote at the time, experts were appalled by the plan, which would have injected money into an economy already struggling with inflation, not to mention put more money into the pockets of some of the wealthiest Britons — those least likely to be impacted by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
Truss rolled back the plan after international markets lost confidence in the UK economy, driving the pound to its lowest-ever valuation against the dollar. Within a month, she had resigned as prime minister, and Sunak won the position shortly thereafter.
The UK is required to have a general election by the end of January 2025 — and given the Tories’ many scandals and the government’s inability to address some of Britons’ most pressing problems it seems like their time in power may finally be coming to an end. It has failed to deliver on the basic promises of government because “the party is divided on fundamental questions of government,” as Matthias Matthijs, an associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told Vox after Truss’ resignation.
Brexit, Matthjis argued, created a political landscape in which people’s political identity was built on one policy. That worked as long as Brexit was in process; Johnson’s Brexit cheerleading, combined with Labour voters’ disillusion with their own party, produced a major electoral win for the Tories in 2019. But those effects can’t be replicated since Brexit is done and has produced so many unfavorable economic and labor aftershocks.
Sunak has tried to center theTories’ political identity around immigration, since it is a prominent issue for the conservative base and a growing humanitarian concern and financial burden. But as with Brexit, building a political identity around one polarizing issue only invites more polarization, rather than building a party that can attract a variety of voters with real policies that actually improve their lives.
That identity crisis has been playing out since the end of Johnson’s tenure, and despite Sunak’s apparent moderate swing, there’s no going back to pre-Brexit politics — even with Cameron in his cabinet.