Suella Braverman’s speeding ticket row makes her lukewarm partnership with Rishi Sunak even cooler
NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan considers what the story says about the relationship between the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary.
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Rishi Sunak never likes to give too much away about what he’s thinking or feeling. He’s not a politician who wears his heart on his sleeve - he prefers process and getting as much information as possible before taking a position whenever someone in his government is in a spot of bother.
That’s why it was interesting to see the Prime Minister, as he entered the House of Commons chamber this afternoon (May 22), giving a brief but supportive pat on the back to Suella Braverman as he sat beside her on the frontbench. It was a deliberately public display of solidarity. Whether it means more than that is up for debate.
Sunak hadn’t even left the G7 summit in Japan when The Sunday Times reported over the weekend that Braverman - who was caught speeding last summer - tried to get civil servants to arrange a one-to-one speed awareness course for her. No-one’s confirmed (on the record) the reason why but these courses are always usually held in groups, so she’d have been recognised by members of the public if she went along to one. The civil servants apparently refused her request and in the end, she opted instead for a fine and three points on her licence.
The ministerial code matter
The fine itself isn’t the issue; Braverman got caught and has taken her punishment. The problem is that members of the government are obliged to follow the ministerial code - which bans any conflict of interest between your public duties and private interests. Breaching it is meant to be a resigning matter. Labour and the Liberal Democrats aren’t happy about the idea of civil servants being asked to fix a private speed awareness course for a senior minister - so they want Sunak’s independent ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus to investigate.
In the Commons, Sunak confirmed he’d spoken to Braverman and Sir Laurie - and said he’d asked for “further information” and would give a further update in “due course”. Again, the PM likes process - and an investigation would seem like an obvious next step so the news agenda moves on for a while, giving him a bit more thinking time about what to do next.
It’s worth remembering that Sunak took a calculated risk bringing Braverman back into the Cabinet just six days after she resigned in the dying days of the Liz Truss era for sending a confidential document on her personal email. She endorsed her now boss in the short leadership contest that followed but since then, they’ve not always seen eye to eye - despite the Home Secretary publicly professing loyalty to the PM and vice versa.
A week ago, she gave a speech at the National Conservatism conference (along with other Tories on the right of the party) that was interpreted as a thinly-veiled swipe at her own government’s immigration policy - the policy for which she’s responsible. Downing Street had to defensively tell journalists she and Number 10 were still singing from the same hymn sheet.
It’s politically useful for Sunak to keep Braverman in his Cabinet to avoid the charge from some of his noisier backbenchers - like Jacob Rees-Mogg - that the Conservative right is being marginalised at the expense of “technocrats” like Chancellor Jeremy Hunt at the helm. They love Braverman’s willingness to take on “woke” culture and believe she could be the next Tory leader if the party loses the next election. It’s also worth saying the PM has also staked his reputation on “stopping the boats” - an idea Braverman very much supports.
But she’s not one of his close entourage and that’s why we’ve not heard him giving her his full-throated defence. Case in point: Braverman told journalists today that “at no point” did she “attempt to evade sanction” over her speeding ticket, insisting “nothing untoward” had happened. A Downing Street spokesperson was asked whether Sunak endorsed those comments - and they declined to answer.
It’s why that pat on the back I mentioned is interesting. As things stand, it appears the Prime Minister is standing by his home secretary until evidence has been put in front of him that gives him reason to think otherwise. Even if there is an investigation, one Conservative MP I spoke to said they didn’t think it would prove fatal for Braverman - and they were more concerned about civil servants leaking stories to the media to “kick out ministers”.
But whether Braverman stays or goes, this is yet another test of Sunak’s promise to deliver “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at the heart of government. For a man who lives by process, he’ll potentially have a bit more to wade through very soon.