One of the many reasons Boris Johnson is no longer prime minister is because large numbers of his MPs had had enough of being made to look ridiculous by him. They had grown sick of being sent onto the TV and the radio to defend ridiculous policies that would be dropped hours later, or simply to repeat various absurd lies that they would never have dreamt of coming out with themselves.
So it doesn’t necessarily bode well that it’s day three of the Rishi Sunak era, and the same thing is happening again already. With Johnson, this absurdity actually began several months before he even became prime minister.
In the summer of 2019, when Johnson’s elevation to the highest office of all had become a certainty, he tested the loyalty of various would-be acolytes by making them accept media bookings that he had turned down. And he would then listen to them squirm while they found themselves unable to answer such questions as “how many children does he have?” In the end, the greater the capacity for humiliation, the better the cabinet job they received at the end.
Rishi Sunak is not quite so shameless, but his Suella Braverman predicament is equally absurd, and the government’s chosen line of defence is almost as preposterous as anything Johnson ever managed (nothing can ever truly be his equal – the invisible cheese and wine parties will never be surpassed).
At the despatch box of the House of Commons on Wednesday, mere seconds after Suella Braverman had scurried out in order to avoid answering a question about herself, we would be told the reason she had been sacked and then reappointed after only six days was because the government “believes in redemption”. An MP by the name of Jeremy Quin actually said these words.
Owing to the procedural complexities of the change of government, he was answering the question despite having technically ceased to be minister for policing the previous day. A man still with some kind of oversight role over the police, claiming that crimes can very easily be absolved after six days – that would be ridiculous.
But it has carried on. On Thursday morning, it fell to Nadhim Zahawi to go around the broadcast studios and make this ridiculous case. Usually, this is the kind of thing that politicians object to being made to do, but after the weekend – during which Zahawi made a quite staggering fool of himself entirely of his own volition – it can’t be ruled out that he actually does this kind of thing for fun.
He really did look Sky News’s Niall Paterson in the eye and say ask him if “he believes in second chances”.
It hardly needs to be spelled out that a person can believe in redemption as a human possibility, while simultaneously not thinking a very senior politician can be sacked for a breach of national security and then get the same job back six days later.
There are also, shall we just say, “question marks” surrounding the truthfulness of Braverman’s version of events. A version that has also been repeated in the House of Commons by the prime minister, and contradicted by people who were actually present to experience them.
Braverman says she told the prime minister (that’s Liz Truss, by the way – it’s easy to lose track) as soon as she realised what she’d done. Jake Berry, the now former party chairman, went on TV on Wednesday night to say that what had actually happened is that what she’d done was put to her, by the cabinet secretary, and left her with no choice but to resign.
Since then Braverman has claimed that Truss was trying to find a way to sack her because of a disagreement about immigration. In the end, she was sacked, and a day later Truss had to resign in complete humiliation, partly as a result of the whole fiasco. As a general principle, prime ministers who are hanging on by a thread don’t look for ways to fire their home secretaries. They certainly don’t go out of their way to make themselves look even more hopeless.
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We also learn that, according to The Times, MI5 have been worried about Braverman since January. That the mistake that cost her her job is not as trivial as she has tried to claim. And we also know, because it is overwhelmingly obvious, that Braverman is only back in her job because she did a deal with Rishi Sunak over it at the weekend.
Why did he do it? Well, Zahawi, this time on the Today programme, found himself saying, “Politics moves at breakneck speed these days”. And also, you know, “the prime minister believes in second chances”.
Though it is a radio show, the Today programme now points high-definition cameras at its guests and makes the footage available online, so we must add that, to Zahawi’s credit, these words exited his mouth as easily as one of those burps that turn out to be carrying a small amount of sick.
Sunak, one must assume, is hoping this will blow over. That before long he’ll have been given another reason to sack Braverman, and that he will gleefully take it. But his judgement has already been quite rightly called into question. He cannot pass her off as someone else’s error. And she is also not the only national security risk he has chosen to bring back into government. See also Sir Gavin Williamson, the perpetual floater of British politics – a man who can do absolutely no right yet who simply refuses ever to be flushed away.
It took just under three years for Tory MPs to decide they could take no more of Johnsonian shame-by-proxy. If that is an established benchmark, then perhaps Sunak need not worry. The voters have got no intention of giving him that long.