Sunak’s challenge among Conservatives laid bare as Braverman stakes claim to top job

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s challenge to steady his governing Conservative Party in the wake of damaging local election results was laid bare on Monday when Home Secretary Suella Braverman staked her claim to succeed him as party leader.

Braverman — a darling of the Tory right — warned against the UK’s high levels of immigration, railed against “experts and elites,” and branded identity politics as “illiberal,” saying Conservatism “has no truck with political correctness.” Her prize was a standing ovation at the end of a 40-minute speech at NatCon UK, a conference organized by the Washington-based Edmund Burke Foundation.

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The speech, which Braverman laced with her back story as a second-generation immigrant, highlighted the maneuvering within the ruling party as senior Conservatives eye who might succeed Sunak if he loses a general election that’s widely expected to be held next year. The Tories shed more than 1,000 seats in local elections earlier this month, and after trailing the opposition Labour Party by a double-digit margin for months, look set to lose any national vote.

“The local elections have emboldened pretenders to the Conservative crown,” Salma Shah, a former adviser to former Chancellor Sajid Javid said in an interview. “The home secretary is making a blatant attempt at positioning her credentials.”

Sunak has faced a steady drip of criticism in recent weeks, especially from the party’s right. There’s been disquiet on housing policy and the high burden of taxation, and last week, he drew opprobrium from Brexit-backing Tories when he ditched a promise to scrap all European Union-era laws by the end of the year.

That led former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg to compare him to the Borgias, a renaissance Italian family that became a byword for immorality. While Rees-Mogg also acknowledged that the party would be “toast” if it ditched another leader after cycling through five since 2016, several Conservatives seem to be vying to shape the party in the future.

‘Stop this decline’

Over the weekend, former Home Secretary Priti Patel blamed “bad decisions and Tory “infighting for the poor election results” and said her party had to “stop this decline.” Without naming Sunak, she lamented that his ascent to power without a vote of the party grassroots had undermined trust.

If that weren’t enough, Sunak’s immediate predecessor, Liz Truss, is visiting Taiwan later this week to deliver a speech that’s likely to clash with the prime minister’s more nuanced China policy.

On Monday, Braverman hit many hot-button issues for the party’s right as she sought to appeal to the Tory grassroots, including an attack on what she called the “radical left and a jibe at Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer for his stance on trans people.

British Secretary of State for the Home Department Suella Braverman leaves Number 10 Downing Street following the weekly cabinet meeting, in London, Britain May 9, 2023. (Reuters)
British Secretary of State for the Home Department Suella Braverman leaves Number 10 Downing Street following the weekly cabinet meeting, in London, Britain May 9, 2023. (Reuters)

Braverman drew loud applause while mocking a comment by Starmer earlier this year that 99.9 percent of women “don’t have a penis.” She joked that she couldn’t rule Starmer out from running to be Labour’s first female leader, alluding to the party’s record of only ever being led by men.

Given that her role includes responsibility for immigration policy, her comments on that topic were particularly revealing. The government, she said, needed to deliver an economy that was “less dependent on low-skilled foreign labor,” as outlined in its election-winning manifesto from 2019.

She warned that high immigration levels threaten the “national character,” even though Britain has depended for decades on waves of immigration to fill jobs in health care, hospitality, and agriculture. Braverman, whose own parents are of Indian origin and emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s, drew criticism last month for trying to justify a new police initiative by blaming “British Pakistani men” for preying on “young white English girls.”

Sunak spokesman Max Blain said the prime minister’s office had been aware of the home secretary’s speech and it had been signed off “in the usual way.”

“She continues to represent the UK government views on all issues relating to the Home Office, as you would expect,” Blain told reporters.

Jennifer Cassidy, a lecturer in diplomatic studies at the University of Oxford, questioned why Sunak hadn’t yet made more of an effort to rein in Braverman’s rhetoric.

“This is because, firstly, he may be simply too weak to stand up to her, or secondly, he shares these ideals and values, or third, he knows culture wars and divisive rhetoric is the key to electoral success,” Cassidy said. “Perhaps we will see which one comes through in the next general election campaign.”

The prime minister must call a general election by January 2025 at the latest. After a brief respite for Sunak during which the damaging local election results were eclipsed by the long weekend of celebrations for the coronation of King Charles III, his party started to actively debate them.

The Tories are on their third leader in less than a year after ousting first Boris Johnson following a series of scandals over illegal partying during the pandemic and misbehavior by members of his government, and then Truss when she roiled the markets with her economic policies during her seven weeks in power — the shortest premiership ever.

Sunak was due to spend Monday evening wooing back recalcitrant Tory backbenchers by throwing a drinks party in the garden of his Downing Street residence.

Braverman was received warmly by the conservative audience in the Westminster church hall where she delivered her speech.

Under current rules, in any party leadership contest, she’d have to convince enough Tory MPs to back her before a vote of the party’s wider membership. Rivals would likely include fellow cabinet members Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch, and James Cleverly.

“If Rishi Sunak is going to get to the next election, he will have to discipline a party with an ambitious cabinet, nervous backbench, and ideologues,” Shah said. “None of his numerous predecessors have managed it.”

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