How Do You Solve A Problem Like Suella?
Suella Braverman is a headache for Rishi Sunak
The look on Rishi Sunak’s face when BBC political editor Chris Mason asked him the question said it all.
After four days of rubbing shoulders with the world’s most powerful men at the G7 summit in Japan, the prime minister was unceremoniously brought back down to earth with a thump.
On Saturday evening, The Sunday Times revealed that after being caught speeding, home secretary Suella Braverman had asked her civil servants if she could attend a private speed awareness course to avoid being recognised by members of the public.
After being told that it would not be possible, she paid a fine and had three penalty points added to her licence.
However, having asked civil servants to help her with a personal matter, there were suggestions that she had broken the ministerial code.
It was therefore perfectly reasonable for Mason to ask the PM: “Will you ask the independent adviser on ministers’ interests to look into your home secretary’s conduct after she asked civil servants to help her deal with being caught speeding, and do you have full confidence in Suella Braverman?”
After pausing to take a gulp of water, the PM composed himself, glared at his inquisitor and said: “Did you have any questions about the summit?”
Reading from pre-prepared notes, he added: “I don’t know the full details about what has happened, nor have I spoken to the home secretary. I think you can see first hand what I’ve been doing over the last day or so.
“But I understand that she’s expressed regret for speeding, accepted the penalty and paid the fine.”
Although things looked bleak for the home secretary at that moment, Sunak ultimately decided to give her another chance.
After consulting with his ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, the PM decided that although Braverman could have handled the situation better, she had not broken the ministerial code.
While few took issue with that judgment, there is also little doubt that, politically, it was the only option available to him.
“If he’d sacked her she would just have teamed up with the other disaffected people on the backbenches and caused him even more trouble,” says one Tory aide. “Sometimes it’s probably best to keep them inside the tent.”
Another school of thought is that Braverman wants to get sacked - or be left with no option but to resign - and position herself for a Tory leadership bid after the general election.
Why else, the theory goes, would she have told the recent National Conservatism conference that immigration must come down - a 2019 Tory manifesto commitment that Sunak distances himself from at every opportunity.
One Tory MP said: “I actually like Suella on a personal level - she’s very engaging and interesting to talk to.
“But you can’t get away from the fact that she’s crazy.”
A former minister added: “It’s pretty obvious that, one way or another, she won’t be in the cabinet by the time of the next election. The only question is when she goes.”
Eyebrows were also raised when Braverman was nowhere to be seen on on Thursday when it was confirmed that net migration had reached a record high of 606,000.
Sources close to the home secretary said she was in “internal meetings” all day at the Home Office, but cynics claimed it was an attempt to distance herself from the government’s failure to bring the number down.
Senior Labour figures believe Sunak’s willingness to put up with Braverman’s eccentricities is further proof of the prime minister’s weakness.
A source told HuffPost UK: “You can’t talk about competence and put someone so obviously unfit for the job in charge of national security. It’s a joke.
“The public are smart: even the hardliners she is meant to appeal to see her as a total embarrassment. The only reason she’s in the job is party management, simple as that.
“Wishy-washy Rishi is too scared to stand up to the headbangers in his party. If he had even a fragment of a spine he’d get a grip on them - but time and again he’s shown he is too weak.”
There is no doubt that the home secretary does have substantial support among Conservative MPs on the right of the party, a group who Sunak can ill-afford to antagonise any further, given his failures on immigration and perceived back-sliding on Europe.
But by allowing Braverman to remain in the cabinet, he is making it more likely that that she will eventually succeed him as Tory leader.