Last time I wrote about a maladroit intervention by the Home Secretary, all of four days ago, I opened it by quoting from my last article about her, which made the same basic point: that there is (or might be) a decent political point to be sieved from her comments, but if so it was absolutely buried by abysmal political messaging.
I don’t think I can get away with doing that again, lest this devolve into a recursive journalistic matryoshka. But I could have, because the pattern holds: there are unobjectionable and even important policy and political issues in, or at least adjacent to, Suella Braverman’s most recent article in the Times.
But the overall presentation seems calculated to maximise objections. If there were organised anti-debating, where speakers had to present a decent case in such a way as to lose the room, the Home Secretary could compete.
If that sounds like an uncharitable reading, it is in fact – according to allies of Braverman who spoke to Nick Watt of Newsnight – the policy.
He reports this person saying that “unless the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Guardian, the BBC and most of the commentariat are up in arms about Suella Braverman then she’s not doing her job properly” (a definition which suggests her role might be better and more quietly fulfilled by posting glitter through their letterboxes).
It might be true that a substantive programme of reform to public order policing would adequately aggravate some or all of those key stakeholders, although even then it wouldn’t be the point. But to anyone who actually supports such a programme, angering a bunch of powerful opinion formers whilst changing nothing is, or surely ought to be, obviously counterproductive?
There are reasonable questions to ask, as our editor did yesterday, whether the law governing protests needs reform in the face of a plan to stage massive events in central London, on a weekly basis, indefinitely.
It is clearly much easier to organise mass demonstrations today than it was in analogue times, and there is a balance to be struck between freedom of this particular form of expression and competing interests, such as cost to the taxpayer and public inconvenience (to say nothing of the particular impact of these particular events, or at least their uglier fringes, on the Jewish community).
Nor is it wrong to point out that, at present, this country combines sweeping official powers with sometimes starkly uneven enforcement. One man gets 150 hours of community service for an offensive tweet, another gets the police explaining that “the word jihad has a number of meanings” when he uses it in front of a banner calling for “Muslim armies” to conquer (and presumably erase) Israel. Peaceful protesters have their activities restricted to avoid trouble from potentially violent protesters. And so on, and on.
Heck, there might even be a case to make that given the police’s consistently appearing to give different demonstrations different treatment, whilst theoretically applying the same law, we should perhaps dispense with some of the fiction of dispassionate procedure and have more discretionary decision making, with proper accountability, over things such as permissions for large events.
But to make such arguments soberly is not only to risk the BBC or the Archbishop of Canterbury not getting angry, but also pushes one irresistibly towards actually trying to do something about them. And that is not in keeping with what seems to be the current mode of too much of Conservative politics, which is to erect (or inherit) procedures and then howl at their consequences. Or perhaps, strike suitably aggressive poses at them and check the right people are howling at you.
In our constitution, a government with an overall majority in the Commons can do nigh-on whatever it likes. It could certainly reform the Metropolitan Police. The failure to do so, despite years of recent provocation and decades of accumulated scandals, was and is a choice.
(For reasons of space we shall skip over the bizarre decision to include a throwaway, impenetrably gnomic reference to Northern Ireland; I’ve dealt with that somewhere else. Yet according to the Times, she fought to retain it! Thank goodness the Government isn’t engaged in extremely sensitive negotiations about getting Stormont back on its feet or that might have looked like gross negligence.)
Anyway. I will probably (surely?) not have/get to write another one of these. Were Rishi Sunak determined for whatever reason to keep Braverman in the Cabinet, Downing Street would not be telling people she had defied orders to make some edits to her draft. Freelancing as a secretary of state is one thing, albeit a bad thing; straightforwardly ignoring the Prime Minister is another.
This is not something that needs to be buried in any arcana about the Ministerial Code; as Alex Thomas of the Institute for Government points out, “not clearing media is not a serious breach”. Sunak does not need an inquiry to tell him whether he asked for changes to the article or not. It’s a straightforwardly political question about collective responsibility and his authority over his Cabinet. Specifically, whether he has any.
There are complications, of course. The Home Secretary’s allies claim she has 60 parliamentary supporters ready to cause trouble (although given the thinness of the King’s Speech, that perhaps isn’t the threat it might be). Certainly Braverman speaks for a section of the party; not for nothing did Sunak almost certainly do a deal with her as he was securing the leadership last year.
He must also consider his long-overdue reshuffle. It would be faintly absurd (if by no means impossible) to do a mini-reshuffle specifically to sack one minister only then to hold a full game of musical chairs a few months’ hence. But putting together a full-fat reshuffle is not something even the most hard-pressed of premiers can sensibly do off the cuff on a Thursday evening. Perhaps that explains the wait.
Pushing things to the other side of the weekend carries some political danger, however. If the worst should happen on Saturday, the Home Secretary and her allies will claim she has been vindicated, and they won’t be entirely wrong.
That probably wouldn’t be enough to change the fundamental calculation; collective responsibility is what it is, words-not-deeds politics won’t furnish solutions even if it describes the problem, and politically it is absurd that the Conservatives have managed to make this week about their divisions rather than Labour’s.
But it would make the resulting showdown a lot uglier than it might otherwise be. And sooner or later, a showdown there must now surely be.