‘A bold move’: the press’s reaction to a sacking and a surprise return
News media was as shocked as the rest of the world to see the return of David Cameron. But who is in the cabinet matters less to readers than the fundamental problems facing the country.
Until David Cameron shocked the world of the media by walking boldly towards the door of Number 10 Downing Street once again on Monday morning, we thought we had known exactly what had happened to former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
It was fairly obvious that she had committed political suicide by writing a provocative article for The Times, which had not been fully cleared by Downing Street.
It was a short article, essentially accusing the police of bias in handling different classes of demonstrators, for it to have such an effect on a political career.
But naturally The Times had grabbed it with open arms and splashed Thursday’s paper with the story under the headline: “Braverman brands Met biased over Gaza march,” thereby hugely amplifying the impact.
Was that the end of Braverman’s political career? Would Prime Minister Rishi Sunak finally sack her or would he continue to prevaricate?
By Saturday’s Times Mathew Parris seemed to be reading the last rites over Braverman when he argued that there was no time for Sunak to dither. The future of the Conservatives depended on sacking Braverman and seeing off the hard right.
Parris related how former Prime Minister Theresa May had once invited him for a cup of tea in Downing Street.
“I warned her that the hardline Tory right would destroy her if they could. I doubt she heard me. If, now, Rishi Sunak still ignores that warning, all is lost. I repeat: what he faces is not a setback but an opportunity. Seize it,” Parris argued.
Meanwhile the Tory press — with the Daily Mail in this particular vanguard as usual — continued to display no awareness of what was really going on and ready to go over the edge of the cliff with Braverman.
On Friday the Mail, approvingly, had Suella “coming out fighting” and on Monday when dramatic events were about to unfold, the paper was still parroting the view of the Tory Right – “Come for Suella and You Come For Us All.”
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) November 9, 2023
By the time that front page reached most Mail readers, Braverman had already been peremptorily sacked in a pre-breakfast telephone call.
The formal words of excommunication
We now know, thanks to some excellent catch-up reporting, what had really being going on, although not a single journalist got a whiff of the drama at the time.
In one of Westminster’s best kept secrets, David Cameron, now Lord Cameron, came in by the back entrance of Downing Street on Tuesday evening and negotiated in the Prime Minister’s flat a return to Government as Foreign Secretary.
It is still not entirely clear whether the arrival of Cameron inevitably meant the departure of Braverman, although it probably did.
According to Mail analysis, Sunak had been planning to delay a major reshuffle until next year until Braverman caused consternation, even on the Tory right, by announcing that charities should be prevented from issuing tents to rough sleepers and that rough sleeping was “a lifestyle choice.”
Braverman’s article in The Times seems to have accelerated events.
On Wednesday evening when Sunak saw The Times, with the accusations of bias against the Met and eccentric comparisons with sectarian marches in Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister was heard to pronounce the formal words of excommunication.
“She is not a team player,” said the Prime Minster and from that moment Braverman was toast.
Big and bold
The approach of many newspapers, which didn’t see it coming and are unsure whether to approve or not, has been to call it a bold move.
The Sun merely wished the new team luck and warned that “they have a mountain to climb and very little time.”
The paper doubted, however, whether many cared who held particular Cabinet positions. They were tired of the Tory soap opera and just want “our biggest problems fixed” such as cutting the cost of living, hospital waiting lists and the highest tax burden in 70 years.
The legendary political and polling expert Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University writing for The Independent, had an interesting take on the relative boldness of the appointments and sackings.
The important areas where the Conservatives have lost ground to Labour have been the economy and the health service.
That suggests, according to Sir John, the most significant new appointment was not that of Lord Cameron, but of Victoria Atkins as Health Secretary.
“Mr Sunak has opted to give the job of reducing the ever-lengthening NHS waiting list to someone new to Cabinet rank with no previous experience of the Department of Health. Now that does look like a bold move,” Sir John noted.
“Events dear boy,” as Harold Macmillan justified changes of political direction.
Who is in the cabinet matters less than the issues at hand
In this case events continue to move rapidly, not least today’s decision from the Supreme Court on whether it is lawful to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Whatever the outcome, it is likely to pose difficulties for the Government. Win and there will be enduring controversies and the high cost and impractical nature of the Rwanda operation. Lose and there will be divisive calls from the Conservative right for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights to force through the Rwanda deportations.
With Cameron in the Foreign Office and James Cleverly in the Home Office, it is extremely unlikely that the UK will be leaving the ECHR anytime soon.
That, in turn, will cause divisions in a struggling Conservative Government.
Looking across the acres of coverage, The Sun has probably got it spot on. People do not care much who is in the Cabinet. The changes will signify very little if the fundamental problems of the country such as the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS waiting lists are not tackled.
There is also no history of reshuffles having much impact on public opinion, and for the last year — give or take a percentage point or two — Labour has held a stable lead of around 20 percentage points.
There is equally no history of any Government, with or without the help of Lord Cameron, coming back from such a deficit — barring totally unforeseen and wholly dramatic events.
The current situation is best summed up by the sceptical approach of The Economist.
“David Cameron’s return marks the triumph of image over reality. A man who caused many of our country’s problems is now offering to fix them,” the magazine that calls itself a newspaper concluded.