Few Prime Ministers in recent times can have started in a position as fragile as that of Rishi Sunak. He inherits a fractious parliamentary party and Satanic national polling. His first task is going to be selling his MPs on a dose of bitter austerity medicine.
The construction of his Cabinet reflects this. Whilst he and Jeremy Hunt are on broadly the same page in terms of economic policy, and retaining the latter sends a reassuring signal to the markets, no premier can be happy not to have chosen their own chancellor, nor to abstain from distributing plum jobs such as Foreign Secretary to their own supporters.
No appointment better captures Sunak’s position, however, than the return of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just a week after she resigned the post after breaching the Ministerial Code by sending confidential documents via a private email – the price, apparently, of her support in the leadership contest.
In purely political terms, it’s hard to dispute it was a worthwhile bargain to strike. Given how close both Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt allegedly got to triggering a second-round contest – and how little confidence Sunak likely had of winning a members vote – it may well have secured him the leadership.
But the optics obviously aren’t brilliant. At a time when the Conservatives would do well to draw a line under Boris Johnson’s premiership, ministerial misconduct and the question of ethics are back in the headlines. Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, is reportedly “livid”. There are calls for (yet another) inquiry. And Sir Keir Starmer gets attack lines like this:
“He’s so weak, he’s done a grubby deal trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election – there’s a new Tory at the top but as always with them party first, country second.”
Yet there is a counter-case. The Ministerial Code is not some ancient part of our constitution; in any event, how it is upheld is, rightly, the province of the prime minister, for which he or she is accountable to Parliament and, ultimately, the nation. Any Conservative premier is right to be wary of the push to make service in Cabinet subject to independent bureaucratic power.
That’s before even getting to the question of what punishment one thinks appropriate given the substance of the complaint, which is basically that Braverman sent a “sensitive document” to Sir John Hayes, a backbencher, from a personal email and accidentally copied in another staffer who shared his last name. Or is breaching the code itself the offence, justifying the uniform punishment of dismissal?
Ultimately, there are two distinct questions here: a constitutional one, and a political one. On the constitutional question of whether or not Sunak ought to be able to re-appoint a Secretary of State who had resigned but a week previously, the answer in our political system seems obviously yes. As to whether it was a political price worth paying, only time will tell.