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Paul Vallely: Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle is a big gamble

17 November 2023

Will it be enough to win the next election, asks Paul Vallely

Alamy

Lord Cameron attends Cabinet, on Tuesday, after being appointed Foreign Secretary

Lord Cameron attends Cabinet, on Tuesday, after being appointed Foreign Secretary

THE balance of power has shifted in the Conservative government. Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle has sent out a signal that he believes that the imminence of a General Election, barely a year away, will enable him to outmanoeuvre the Tory right-wingers who have straitjacketed the policies of a succession of his predecessors.

In recent decades, Conservative prime ministers have been elected not by the public but by grass-roots party activists who are significantly more right-wing than the general electorate. Would-be Tory leaders had to embrace policies significantly more extreme than would appeal to the wider voting population. The prospect of a General Election has inverted that power-play.

Mr Sunak’s calculation certainly paid off in the short term. Howls of outrage might have been expected from both Tory hardliners and right-wing newspapers when he finally decided that Suella Braverman’s dog-whistle politics had become too incendiary. The PM’s recall of David Cameron to frontline politics totally overshadowed the Home Secretary’s departure.

Mr Sunak’s new Cabinet of mainstream centrist pragmatists might go some way to persuading disenchanted Tory voters that the party that they were once happy to support might be returning. It is, the PM has calculated, the only way of seeing off a Labour Party that is currently 24 points ahead in the polls. For all that, Mr Sunak remains in a difficult position.

The Opposition will make hay with the fact that Mr Sunak used the word “change” 30 times in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference. As the Bringer of Change, he vowed to break from the failures of the “30-year status quo”. Yet, only a month later, he has exhumed the great embodiment of that old consensus: the man who was Prime Minister for a key part of them.

It’s a big gamble. Many will see Lord Cameron as a figure of reassuring gravitas, but others will cast doubt on his judgement on many significant decisions in his day. His austerity left public services on the brink of collapse. His intervention in Libya created a failed state. Then there is his “golden era” of co-operation with China, the part that he played in the Greensill scandal, and, above all, his disastrous decision to call a referendum on Brexit. Hostages to fortune aplenty.

Mr Sunak is to be applauded for his decision to sack Ms Braverman, who has now exposed, in her vituperative tirade of resignation, that he made her Home Secretary in the first place only in a grubby deal to secure his election as Tory leader. That does not reflect well on him, though she lacks the votes to oust him.

David Cameron rescued the Conservatives from being “the Nasty Party”; Ms Braverman was threatening to turn it into the Ugly Party by calling anti-war protests “hate marches”, inveighing against the “hurricane” and “invasion” of desperate migrants, declaring that homelessness was a “lifestyle choice”, and whipping up extremist thugs to attack the police protecting the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. Her wild words were cover for the fact that, as Home Secretary, she had got very little done.

Mr Sunak’s reshuffle might not be enough to save the Conservatives from electoral defeat, but it has taken a step towards restoring civility and decency to his party.

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