James Cleverly: a 'relaxed', Warhammer-loving home secretary — can he deliver where Braverman couldn't?


The first British foreign secretary of African heritage. The third education secretary in a 48-hour period last year. The fourth home secretary in just over a year.

These are just some of the accolades that James CleverlySuella Braverman's successor as home secretary and the man in the eye of the storm of tackling Britain's record immigration levels — has racked up over his rollercoaster last 16 months in government.

The Lewisham-born father-of-two and MP for Braintree in Essex jetted into Rwanda yesterday morning, making him the third home secretary to travel to the country in recent years — a figure that critics have been quick to point out is three more than the number of asylum seekers they’ve actually sent there to date.

Home Secretary James Cleverly arrives at Kigali International Airport (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Home Secretary James Cleverly arrives at Kigali International Airport (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

But Cleverly, 54, seems undeterred. He arrived in the capital Kigali on Tuesday, signing a new asylum deal with Rwanda in a bid to revive his government's troubled plan to send migrants to the African nation as he promises to make the "biggest ever reduction" in net migration to the UK.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Rwanda scheme on November 15, just two days into Cleverly's new role as home secretary after a shock Cabinet reshuffle saw him replaced by former PM David Cameron as foreign secretary and appointed as Braverman's successor overnight. Cleverly's mission now? Making that Rwanda deal legally watertight after months of legal and politics wrangling.

"We are clear that Rwanda is a safe country, and we are working at pace to move forward with this partnership to stop the boats and save lives," he said ahead of his trip to Rwanda this week. "The Supreme Court recognised that changes may be delivered in future to address the conclusions they reached - and that is what we have set out to do together, with this new, internationally recognised treaty agreement. Rwanda cares deeply about the rights of refugees, and I look forward to meeting with counterparts to sign this agreement and further discuss how we work together to tackle the global challenge of illegal migration."


Rwanda is just one of several new policies that Cleverly — an army reserve officer, Warhammer fan and close ally of Liz Truss — has proposed in his short stint in office so far. Among the others set out in his new five-point plan to reduce immigration: raising the minimum salary for a skiller worker visa, and banning care workers from bringing their families to the UK — one that has attracted particular criticisms of hypocrisy given Cleverly's own mother came to Britain from Sierra Leone to work as a midwife. So what exactly is Cleverly's background in government so far? Will he really be less polarising than his predecessor — or is he simply another government mouthpiece as critics fear?

From Sandhurst to publishing and politics

Cleverly was raised in Chelmsford in Essex to Evelyn Suna Cleverly, a midwife from Sierra Leone, and James Philip Cleverly, a British-born surveyor. He was born in 1969 in Lewisham Hospital, where his mother worked, and was privately educated at Riverston School and Colfe's School, both in Lee in south-east London.

After school, he followed the family tradition and joined the army, enrolling at Sandhurst before a leg injury forced him to leave his military career behind. He joined the Territorial Army instead - he still serves in it today as a Lieutenant Colonel - and went back into education, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in hospitality management studies in 1991 before a career at various magazine and digital publishing companies.

In 2007, he co-founded his own publishing company, Point and Fire - the same year he was selected as the candidate for the Bexley and Bromley constituency of the London Assembly after an unsuccessful bid to serve on Lewisham council in 2002 and to become MP for Lewisham East in 2005.

A rising Tory star with his eyes on No 10

In 2012, then-mayor of London Boris Johnson appointed Cleverly as chairman of the London Fire Authority, helping to save money and reform performance in the London Fire Brigade. He stepped down from the role three years later after being selected to run for Parliament at the next general election, securing his seat as the Conservative MP for Braintree in Essex after the sitting Tory MP Brooks Newmark was forced to stand down amid a sexting and obscene images scandal.

He was quickly pinpointed as a rising star in the Tory party, rising through the ranks as a minister in the Foreign Office when it was led by Dominic Raab and then Liz Truss as well as in the Cabinet Office and now-defunct department for exiting the European Union.

In 2017 he said he would "bite the hand off" anyone offering him the chance to be PM. "I used to play rugby and if I got an England call-up I’d be elated and so now I’m doing the political equivalent of being called up to the England team," he explained at the time, referencing the same sport his future boss Boris Johnson became famous for referencing.

"I’m a Conservative member of parliament with a Conservative government – it’s like playing rugby but in a political context. And if I was wearing an England rugby shirt and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘would you like to captain the team?’ of course you’d bite their hand off. So of course in the same context if you’re passionate about politics and you want to make a difference and someone said ‘do you want to be Prime Minister?’ I think most of us would go ‘oh God, I’d love to do that’."

He insisted he remained loyal to then-PM Theresa May at the time but joined the leadership race to replace her two years later in 2019, later pulling out after saying his fellow MPs were not comfortable with the idea of picking a “relatively new” colleague. Boris Johnson ended up winning the race and Cleverly was appointed as co-chairman of the Tory party alongside ben Elliot.

His first Cabinet role came in 2020, when he was appointed the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa.

Brexit, Boris (and Truss) and three baptisms of fire

Commentators were tipping Cleverly for ministerial roles as early as 2017 and he was a strong supporter of Brexit in the 2016 referendum, so it was little surprise when he quickly began rising through the Tory ranks after the 2019 general election.

He was one of just 30 guests to attend the wedding of Boris Johnson and then-Carrie Symonds in May 2021 and was appointed as education secretary during the dying days of Johnson's premiership in July 2022, making him the first education secretary with a military background since Ken Baker in 1989 and the third education secretary in two days, following the promotion of Nadhim Zahawi to chancellor and Michelle Donelan's resignation. For Cleverly, it was also to be the first of what he now calls three "baptism[s] of fire" over the last 18 months.

During his stint as education secretary under Boris Johnson, he said he’d “love to give everyone enough financial freedom” to send their children to private school as he did, adding that he would not “play politics with the future life chances” of his children. He had previously said in 2007 that he believed grammar schools “provide the best way for bright but poor children to get on in life”.

He served as education secretary for just two months before being promoted to foreign minister in September 2022 by then-PM Liz Truss, of whom he had been an ardent supporter since their time together in the foreign office and of whom he promised the public would "warm" to over time when she was elected.

Truss lasted just 45 days in the job but Cleverly — the first British foreign secretary of African heritage — lasted much longer, going onto represent Britain as wars erupted in Ukraine and the Middle East, visiting Kyiv twice during his tenure and visiting Israel just days after the Hamas attacks on October 7.

He once said he loved the foreign office role so much he would need to be "dragged out with scratch marks down the parquet floor" — so his sudden appointment as Britain's new home secretary in last month's Cabinet reshuffle is likely to have come as something of a shock and quite possibly a disappointment, especially given the timing.

On his second day in the job, the Supreme Court ruled that the government's Rwanda plan was unlawful. Days later, legal migration was found to have risen to record levels. He then quickly found himself in the middle of a row over whether he'd described the town of Stockton as a "shithole" in the Commons. Quite the baptism of fire once again.

Home Secretary James Cleverly will arrive in Rwanda on Tuesday (PA) (PA Wire)
Home Secretary James Cleverly will arrive in Rwanda on Tuesday (PA) (PA Wire)

But Cleverly refuses to be intimidated — or that's at least what he claims. "This is now my third baptism of fire and you get to the stage where it's worked, it's what we do— I’m not going to allow myself to be fazed by it," he told The Times a few days into the job.

A dog-loving Warhammer nerd who married his university sweetheart

Cooking. Campaigning. Couple pics with his wife and two dogs.

These are probably the most common sights on Cleverly's Instagram, where he has 30,000 followers. His grid is a mix of life both inside and outside Westminster: state visits to Kenya with King Charles and handshakes with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu alongside downtime at home in Essex, whether it's dog-walks with his wife or fantasy-football updates and 'Cleverly cooks' tutorials of his favourite recipes.

Eagle-eyed followers also unmasked him as a Warhammer fan last year. “A huge day for nerds everywhere. James Cleverly is the first openly Warhammer-painting person to hold one of the great offices of state," an X (formerly Twitter) user called Ben wrote when Cleverly was appointed onto Truss' front bench after unearthing a 2012 tweet on Cleverly’s account showing that he'd liked a YouTube video titled: 'How to paint Astorath The Grim? Warhammer 40000 | Blood Angels'.

Cleverly's pet border terriers Bea and Coco regularly feature on his Instagram, too, as does his wife Susie Cleverly (formerly Susie Sparks) - or "the gorgeous Mrs C", as he regularly refers to her. The couple met when they were both studying at the University of West London (then Ealing College of Higher Education) and he served her on her first day at the student bar where he was working at the time.

They married in 2000 at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and went onto have two "lovely, lively" sons: Freddy, who is currently studying at Nottingham Trent University, and Rupert, who is in sixth-form at a private school.

Cleverly is the house cook, according to Susie, and his father was living with them during a period when she was interviewed in October last year.

“We have such a strong bond, strong relationship and strong marriage," Susie told an interviewer recently, admitting that they've become known for their hopelessly romantic gestures.

Public displays of affection are indeed a common theme on both of hers and her husband's public Instagram accounts, whether it's kissing at October's Tory party conference in Manchester where commentators say she stole the show in a red John Lewis tea dress, or posing for selfies on dog walks in the Essex countryside near their constituency home.

Breast cancer and the biggest job of his career

Cleverly will never forget the day his wife called to tell him she had breast cancer. He was foreign secretary at the time and on his way into Parliament, and found himself unable to talk.

"I was travelling up into Westminster on the train on that Monday morning and Susie called and she was crying," he told BBC Radio Essex of the day Susie had her diagnosis after noticing a "strange dimpling" in her breast in November 2021.

"I felt quite calm at that point when Susie was talking to me and I decided that I needed to let my private secretary and civil servants know that I wasn't going to be in that day. I said I'm really sorry you're going to have to clear the meetings. And he said 'Is everything okay, Minister?' I couldn't speak I couldn't get my words out... that was a real shock."

The couple have both spoken openly and regularly about Susie's diagnosis, treatment and side-effects in the two years since, keen to encourage others to check their breasts in order to catch the symptoms early, as she did. "Luckily I caught it early... I didn't find a lump, I found puckering of my skin, fortunately I knew this to be a sign and went straight to my Doctor," Susie has said since.

She has also fundraised for Cancer Research UK, as have their sons, who came together with a group of friends to shave off their own hair in solidarity. "My sons have got a wonderful circle of friends who have been so incredibly supportive," Cleverly wrote on Instagram in December 2021. "They have also shaved off their flowing teenage locks in solidarity and to raise money for @cr_uk."

Susie successfully completed her course of treatment at Guy's and St Thomas' hospital in April this year — but not without a difficult two years that saw her having to undergo a single mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy that happened to coincide with the biggest job of her husband's career at the time. Among the challenges she's spoken about are almost fainting in front of King Charles and Queen Camilla at a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles in September, while seated on a table alongside the likes of Huw Grant and Mick Jagger.

Susie has since said the experience taught her to "embrace everything". 'You can always be waiting for something better or something different to be around the corner, but anything can happen in the blink of an eye that changes everything. And that made me think, this is my life. Even if I'm cancer-riddled for the rest of it, I've got to embrace what I've got. I have beautiful children, a loving husband... I should just enjoy it."

Cleverly echoed this earlier this year, saying they were in a "much, much better place" in terms of Susie's health and joking that her dragging him to her new gym had helped him to lose a few pounds he'd piled on after a year of diplomatic dinners.

A 'relaxed' team player focused on action — can he deliver where Braverman couldn't?

“I intend to do this job in the way that I feel best protects the British people and our interests.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly signs a book of condolences at the Kigali Genocide Memorial during his visit to Kigali, Rwanda (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Home Secretary James Cleverly signs a book of condolences at the Kigali Genocide Memorial during his visit to Kigali, Rwanda (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

This was Cleverly's polite response when asked if he planned to distance himself from the populist rhetoric of his predecessor, Suella Braverman, as he took the job of home secretary in last month's reshuffle.

Insiders say Cleverly did not want the job. He was quite happy getting stuck into his prior gig as foreign secretary before David Cameron took his place in last month's reshuffle and he was brought into the eye of the storm — indeed he accidentally referred to his old job at the foreign office in one of his first speeches as home secretary, joking at "old habits die hard".

But he has appeared to embrace his new gig since then, echoing his government colleagues to say his three priorities in the job will be "protection of the UK", "stopping the boats" and "supporting our police to keep us safe" as he arrives in Rwanda to sign a new treaty for the government's asylum plan.

[object Object] (Flickr / UK Government)
[object Object] (Flickr / UK Government)

Insiders say he's more of a team player than Braverman — and much less hardline on what many ultimately see as the main home affairs issue of the day: immigration. In his first sit-down interview as home secretary last month, he told The Times that he was "frustrated" with the fixation on the Rwanda migration scheme and that while it was an "important" part of his government's plans to tackle immigration, it is part of a broader strategy and should not be seen as the "be all and end all".

Colleagues have described him as "relaxed", "popular" and less polarising than Braverman, which many say is exactly why Sunak appointed him to the role in the first place. According to his allies, he boosted morale at the Foreign Office and was brilliant at charming his officials and ambassadors alike.

What he does have to his disadvantage is inheriting Braverman's mess, or so critics are calling it. The now-former home secretary left last month amid a fiery face-off with the Met Police and after being found to have sent an official document from her personal email to a fellow MP.

Cleverly says his personal approach is to be a doer; to put actions before rhetoric. “I’m not focused quite as much on describing [the immigration situation], I’m going to spend time dealing with it,” he told The Times last month, again referencing his rugby days. “Don’t talk tough, be tough. I am a player on the pitch. It’s not my job to try and think about creative ways of describing a situation. It is my job to deal with a situation.”

But critics have accused him of treating his previous roles as a "continuous photoshoot" rather than standing up for Britain's "hard interests". During his time as foreign secretary, pictures show him firing a bow and arrow while dressed in Kazakh national dress, cooking a popular Brazilian dish in Latin American, and wearing batik shirts in Jakarta. Can he be trusted to tackle his new in-tray as seriously as it requires? Time will surely be the biggest teller. Braverman lasted 13 months in the job before Cleverly took over, and Grant Shapps just six days before that. Can Cleverly survive his third big baptism of fire and finally get the Tories' Rwanda policy over the line?

Quite possibly, if his last two baptisms are anything to go by. Then again, some of his closest allies have found themselves outlasted by a lettuce in their top government roles in recent years, so — if, like Cleverly, we are to put it in rugby terms — it's all to play for. Time to see him try.