Author : Harsh V. Pant

Published on Nov 23, 2023
Rishi Sunak's Big Bold Gambit - Or Is It Desperation?

British politics has once again taken a turn with the cabinet reshuffle ushered in by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week. The sacking of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary and the return of former Prime Minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary can be viewed both as a desperate gambit by a flailing leader to restore his leadership within and outside the party as well as a dramatic step to redraw the contours of the emerging political contest ahead of elections next year. Whichever way you look at it, the spotlight is now back on Sunak as he comes to grip with the consequences of the decisions he has made.

Former home secretary Braverman has already gone on the record, dashing off a letter to Sunak telling him that his "plan is not working", besides accusing him of betraying his promise to do "whatever it takes" to stop small boats crossing the English Channel. Targeting Sunak publicly, she has written "Someone needs to be honest: your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time. You need to change course urgently".

Braverman has always been a controversial politician and she has been positioning herself on the right of the Conservative Party, emerging as a major voice in the last few years. She had to resign as home secretary in the Liz Truss cabinet in the past after she admitted to sharing confidential documents. This time she lost her job after she accused the Metropolitan Police of bias in handling the protests in an article for the Times newspaper despite the Prime Minister asking her to tone down the language. Sunak, who has had to rein her in earlier too, perhaps found that his leadership was being challenged directly and so she had to go.

She will continue to be a thorn on the side of Sunak. In her letter, she says she joined the Sunak government with explicit conditionality, which included clauses like assurances on cutting legal migration, and guidance to schools on protecting biological sex and safeguarding single-sex spaces. These are all key agenda items for the Conservative right and she is clearly trying to emerge their undisputed leader. Sunak would be mistaken to think that her sacking would make her less of a problem.

However, Sunak's decision to let her go and bring David Cameron, a former PM, as Foreign Secretary also seems to be about the political positioning of the Tories. He seems to be underlining that a more centrist Tory Party has a better bet at reelection next year as it was Cameron who managed to bring the Tories to the centre-stage and make them winnable after years of losing against a Blairite Labour Party. His comeback is not as historic as would seem as there have been other British PMs who returned after a prime ministerial turn - Alec Douglas-Home and Arthur Balfour. It is certainly dramatic, though, as no one had any indication that Cameron would become the fourth Foreign Secretary in as many years, through the House of Lords.

Politically, this is creating ripples both within the Conservative Party and in broader British polity. One Tory backbencher has already submitted a letter of no confidence in Sunak though his leadership will be threatened only if 53 MPs support such a move. Opposition parties, however, have jumped on Cameron's comeback asking if this is back to the future with old faces being brought back when Sunak had promised a fresh start, especially as Cameron's name was entangled in a major financial scandal only recently.

There is no denying the fact that Cameron will carry heft in the world of diplomacy as he is a well known entity, and at a time when British foreign policy is facing major challenges, he can stabilize the ship somewhat just by his presence. His larger foreign policy legacy, however, is complicated. It was under his watch that the referendum was held, leading to Brexit. Though he campaigned for Britain to continue to be a part of the EU, the consequences of his decision to call for a referendum are still being felt in Britain and the Europe. He also tried to envision a "golden era" of closer relations between Britain and China, a policy that has been highly problematic and is now being recrafted. In the Middle East too, his decisions have been controversial from Libya to Syria.

On India, though, Cameron was one of the most significant Prime Ministers in recent years, as he made a serious effort to jettison the traditional British approach towards the subcontinent by deciding to deal with India as a rising power, not merely as a South Asian entity. During his visit to India in 2010, he publicly warned Pakistan against promoting any "export of terror", whether to India or elsewhere, and said it must not be allowed to "look both ways." Rejecting any role for his country in the India-Pakistan dispute, he proposed a close security partnership with India, ushering in a new momentum in India-UK ties that continues to date.

While Cameron as a modernizer of the Conservative Party is a good bet for Sunak, the fault-lines within his party are getting sharper. Braverman's exit and Cameron's entry is unlikely to change the dynamic within the Tories. Sunak has a tough, long political road ahead to navigate.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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