On 24 March 2013, Eddie Mair interviewed then London Mayor Boris Johnson on BBC radio, asking critical questions about past known misdeeds such as lying to a minister. Mair ended with the comment: “you’re a nasty piece of work”. Can the same comment apply to Suella Braverman, who, when Boris was PM, served as his attorney general?
Observer columnist Nick Cohen would obviously think so. The office of attorney general makes particular demands of the postholder in that they are both an MP in the governing party but also expected to uphold the rule of law and act independently. A recent attorney general who, with good conscience, maintained this balance was Dominic Grieve.
Johnson however, according to one of Cohen’s legal sources “looked for malleable legal figures who would do his bidding and found Suella”. Hence Braverman gave the green light to each of Johnson’s proposed law-breakings. She indulged him with respect to the proposed breaking of the Northern Ireland protocol and the illegalities of the internal markets bill. As Cohen writes:
“At every stage, the attorney general, Suella Braverman, has covered his back. She has disgraced herself, her office, her profession and her country.”
Has Braverman been promoted beyond her abilities?
How competent is Braverman? Another legal source mentioned to Cohen “I was at a Brexit meeting she hosted and it was staggering to realise she did not understand any of the problems”. To this we can add a tendency to exaggeration in her self-promotion. In honing her CV, Braverman claimed to have contributed to the writing of a legal textbook. These claims were rubbished by the book’s author, Philip Kolvin KC who confirmed that “she had done some photocopying for him”.
Worse than her legal shenanigans, however, is Braverman’s extreme illiberalism. Clár Ní Chonghaile in the New European tells of attending a Conservative conference fringe event hosted by the Daily Telegraph. By now Braverman was home secretary and was happy to confide to her audience that evening “I would love to be having a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda. That’s my dream. That’s my obsession” – apparently with “a wistful smile playing on her lips”.
Deporting refugees to Rwanda runs counter to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The proposal is not only inhumane – it is illegal. The plan has been denounced as immoral and barbaric by such august institutions as the United Nations and the Church of England. Fortunately, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stepped in to prohibit the deportation. Not surprisingly this has served to put the ECHR firmly in Braverman’s sights.
As Ní Chonghaile comments: “It’s hard to believe, but Braverman’s declarations make her predecessor Priti Patel, look caring”.
History repeating itself
Liz Truss, as prime minister, chose to appoint Braverman as home secretary but Braverman’s tenure in office was shorter even than the PM’s, having been sacked by Truss for a breach of the ministerial code. Braverman had used her private email to circulate a confidential government document.
The Guardian reports the former chair of the Conservative Party Jake Berry as alleging that Braverman was responsible for “a really serious breach” after mis-sending a very sensitive document to a member of parliamentary staff. Here again we raise the question – ‘How competent is this woman?’. To the surprise of many Westminster-watchers Rishi Sunak has re-appointed Braverman to the post from which she had been ignominiously sacked the previous week. What is going on here?
Sunak’s PMQ debut
On Wednesday 26 October, Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer confronted each other for their first prime minister’s questions (PMQs) since Sunak became prime minister. Sir Keir chose to go straight in on the Braverman re-appointment; how, under the circumstances, could it be justified? Sunak chose to bat the issue away in a blasé fashion: “The matter had been dealt with.”
One might not expect Sunak to be too concerned about Braverman’s illiberalism and the milk of human kindness running so thin with her. After all, for years the Conservatives have been ‘the nasty party’.
However, Sunak ought to have been more concerned about reports in Whitehall that the cabinet secretary Sir Simon Case was ‘furious’ that Braverman had been re-accommodated so soon after a security breach. Moreover, there are significant questions about the home secretary’s general level of competence and her commitment to the rule of law. Why does this woman get her job back so easily?
A strategic appointment?
Starmer’s second question at PMQs questions began to throw some light on this issue. There is strong speculation around Westminster that the right wing of the Conservative parliamentary party are Braverman fans. The party was desperately keen to prevent Johnson getting on to any two-member shortlist that a deal was cut. If Braverman were to be returned to the Home Office her supporters would stomach Sunak and stymie Boris. So far this is the best explanation of a bad appointment.
If true, we do not have a squeaky-clean new administration but a continuation of party interest being put first. Sunak has fallen at the first hurdle.
It is good that Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary has kept up the pressure via an ‘urgent question’ and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called for a Cabinet Office enquiry into national security concerns.
Only time will tell what any enquiry might reveal and what further controversies are to come for Braverman, Sunak and the Conservative Party.