Orcadian Column, 16 November 2023

14 Nov 2023

It seems the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has decided the best way to prove he’s “the change” the country needs is by making former Prime Minister, David Cameron a peer and appointing him Foreign Secretary. If nothing else, this back-to-the-future strategy comprehensively wrong-footed every Westminster watcher on Monday morning.

While eye-catching, though, this attempt by Mr Sunak to drag the perception of his party back towards the political centre ground smacks of desperation. It also speaks volumes about the dearth of options he has available within a parliamentary party that appears hopeless divided and resigned to defeat at the forthcoming General Election. Many Tory MPs are busy polishing their CVs ready for a life beyond politics; others are plotting Mr Sunak’s downfall and jostling for position.

Leading this latter group is Suella Braverman, who was finally and mercifully sacked as Home Secretary moments before David Cameron walked up Downing Street and stole the limelight she felt was rightfully hers. It remains to be seen if Lord Cameron’s extensive lobbying interests come back to haunt both him and the government, but for now, Mr Sunak’s team are congratulating themselves on a rabbit triumphantly pulled from the hat.

As for Ms Braverman, the latest sacking represents a second ignominious exit from the Home Office, having previously been forced out during Liz Truss’ brief ‘reign’ after breaking the ministerial code. This time, though, it was what she sought.

For weeks, Ms Braverman courted controversy with ever more inflammatory rhetoric. It seems her accusation that homeless rough-sleepers were making a ‘lifestyle choice’ was the final straw for Mr Sunak. Unfortunately, his failure to act immediately allowed the former Home Secretary to wreak further havoc.

Having previously denounced pro-Palestinian protests as ‘hate marches’, the former Home Secretary very publicly demanded the police ban a demonstration scheduled for Saturday. As even some of her colleagues warned, this was deeply irresponsible for someone in her position. With tensions already running high, to then pen an article in the Times accusing the Met of ‘playing favourites’ in their approach to policing protests simply poured petrol on the flames, making the task facing police in maintaining public order considerably and needlessly more difficult.

At a time of remembrance, when the message in part is surely one of healing and reconciliation, Ms Braverman chose to stoke division. Sure enough, far right groups interpreted her remarks as a call to arms and gathered in their thousands in central London on Saturday morning ready to ‘defend’ the Cenotaph. This they did by attacking and injuring police, threatening the public and causing general mayhem.

Ms Braverman’s support was key to putting Mr Sunak in Downing Street: her presence in Cabinet, reward for that as well as an attempt to keep a divided party together. Her ‘dog whistle’ rhetoric also proved helpful to Mr Sunak in allowing him to appeal to more right-wing voters without having to appear more extreme himself. Recent polling confirmed this strategy to be misguided and Mr Sunak has acted at last, though not before a great deal of damage has been done.

In some respects, the same can be said of the belated decision by the SNP Health Secretary, Michael Matheson to repay £11,000 of charges racked up on his ipad during a family holiday in Morocco last Christmas. Mr Matheson was one of the SNP’s lower profile Cabinet ministers, and generally seen as a safe pair of hands. Having spent 48 hours insisting these eye-watering costs were a legitimate parliamentary expense incurred doing constituency work, his u-turn has come too late to save that reputation.

Things may yet unravel further with calls for Mr Matheson to surrender his iPad for inspection to see how on earth £11,000 of data roaming charges could possibly be run up in such a short period of time. If it turns out the explanation is less innocent than Mr Matheson suggests, Humza Yousaf will be facing a reshuffle of his own and the search for a new Health Secretary.

All of which is cat nip for political commentators. Thank goodness there’s nothing serious going on nationally or internationally right now that might require the undivided attention of UK and Scottish Ministers.

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