I’ve no wish to help publicise a film called Killing Boris Johnson. But the risk may be unavoidable – because there is a thread that leads from that Cannes Film Festival offering to the Home Secretary’s current troubles.
As Brendan Cox has pointed out, “titles like that normalise violence directed at politicians”. He is the widowed husband of Jo Cox, the Labour MP knifed to death by a nazi fanatic in 2016. Her terrible murder was mirrored by that of David Amess, the Conservative MP stabbed to death by an Islamist one in 2021.
In this age of Twitter hysteria and bubble lifestyles, politicians are at risk of more than trolling – horrible though that is: see Nadine Dorries’ piece on this site: “I want to see you, trapped in a burning car and watch as the heat from the flames melts the flesh from your face,” her article began, as she told the tale of a stalker who haunted her for eight years.
No wonder some women MPs have come off Twitter and their retirement rate from the Commons has been more rapid. A female Labour one was targeted for an imitation killing. A woman Tory one regularly wears a stab vest. I presume that for the film company concerned profits from the film are worth any heightened risk for MPs.
In any event, the Home Secretary is clearly a politician at risk, whoever may hold the post and whatever their party. That’s why holders of the office have police protection. And I’m told that’s why, after Suella Braverman was caught speeding last summer, an issue consequently arose – certainly within government security, specifically; perhaps within the civil service, more broadly.
Namely: were the Home Secretary to attend an in-person course with other motorists, would her protection officers be allowed in the room too? Either those drivers or instruction staff or both might object (though it’s claimed that Braverman herself was easy with the idea) so she asked for advice from civil servants about what to next.
Could she do a one-to-one course online instead, with her name and face visible on camera? Reports claim that the Home Secretary was uneasy about another aspect of modern political life that this possibility raised: not the risk to her person but rather to her reputation – through being taped. So what about a one-to-one course in person?
At this point, the Home Office civil servants asked for advice on how to proceed from the Cabinet Office (quite properly, too). For the Cabinet Office, read our old friend Propriety and Ethics – the office once run by Sue Gray, to whom no introduction is required, and then Helen McNamara, who provided a karaoke machine for a lockdown-breaking Number Ten party.
They told Home Office civil servants to stay out of the whole business. At which point the Home Secretary handed the whole business over to Spads. The course provider was apparently unwilling either to provide a one-to-one course in person or for Braverman to be instructed with the camera turned off. It’s claimed that Braverman wasn’t aware of these requests.
More will doubtless come to light. But if this version of events is correct, what did Braverman do wrong? What ground is there for believing that she is in breach of the Ministerial code? Rather a Minister set on breaking rules and abusing power, we have one preoccupied by avoiding harm or being taped – not a tale that makes a splash, maybe; but one sometimes true to life.
If so, why the commotion? Indeed, who gave the story to the Sunday Times in the first place? A political ill-wisher within the Conservative Party? A civil servant who believes that truth must be spoken to power? (Or rather, leaked to power – since we in the media, from the mightiest publication to the smallest blog, pack a collective punch of our own?)
Who knows? Certainly, a fault line has been running across relations between the Home Office and some Ministers. Priti Patel, when Home Secretary, was accused of bullying. (A Permament Secretary resigned over her “behaviours”.) The same claim was levelled at Michael Gove – reported to have been “visibly angry” with officials over the Ukrainian refugee visa scheme.
Claims of Ministerial bullying run wider – though it may be no coincidence that a significant slice of them have been concentrated in the home affairs/human rights/border control continuum. Getting to the heart of the claims in each case has been made harder by the definition of bullying which the nexus of independent investigators have settled on.
As I pointed out at the time, Patel was criticised by the then Prime Minister’s then Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards Alex Allen, for behaviour that could be subjectively be perceived as bullying even if it wasn’t objectively so. In this definition, bullying becomes an opinion, not a fact.
The same definition was used during Adam Tolley’s investigation into Dominic Raab. The latter said after he quit that his resignation will encourage “a small number of officials to target ministers, who negotiate robustly on behalf of the country, pursue bold reforms and persevere in holding civil servants to account”.
I don’t know about that. But I do know that the Home Secretary has her critics within the civil service, the Conservative Party, business, academia – and those who press for more migration. And up to a point, I get the point – not so much about what she believes as what she sometimes says.
“I would love to have a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession,” she once said. But garnering good publicity, for oneself or for a policy, is beside the point. What matters is getting the policy right. We need more politicians focused on delivery rather than publicity.
But if, presentation-wise, Braverman sometimes rushes in where angels fear to tread, she is – policy-wise – on their side. According to YouGov, a majority of voters believe that immigration recently has been too high. And the issue appears to be rising in salience.
I appreciate that polling tells one many things, but that central finding is unambiguous, not credibly contested and powerful. When the Home Secretary pushes to reduce the time foreign students can stay in the country after their course, bar them from bringing family members, and remove students if they fail to finish their course, she is seeking to give that view practical effect.
So it’s worth Number Ten looking at Braverman in the round. I would understand were it exasperated by some of the media briefing about her position on migration comes from. Or why it might read her speech at last week’s conference as yet another leadership bid. Or remember how she announced one while still a member of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.
The Home Secretary seems to be “on manoeuvres”. But her ambition is containable, at least at the moment – and scarcely unique. There may be a twist to this affair that isn’t yet evident. But as matters stand, the choice for Rishi Sunak is clear. He has a Home Secretary who wants lower immigration, and doesn’t seem to have done anything wrong. Will he back her up or not?