Sunak, a ‘Brexity Cameron’, has handed his enemies a sword

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It is a measure of how far British politics has fallen that the return of David Cameron to high office has been heralded as a restoration of competence.

The former prime minister, now enjoying the palatial splendour of the Foreign Office, presided over a series of policy disasters that scar the UK to this day. His prolonged austerity programme hollowed out public services; he failed to secure a parliamentary majority for military action in Syria; and, most disastrously, his European policy focused on Tory unity, alienating allies in the EU, while he mishandled negotiations ahead of a Brexit referendum called only for reasons of internal party management. 

His post-politics highlight was being caught lobbying ministers for a man whose business is currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. 

Even so, Cameron’s return this week, a coup de théâtre for Rishi Sunak, represented a significant upgrade of the cabinet when combined with the sacking of the inflammatory and unproductive Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. It swells the ranks of those who would rather find solutions than strike positions in the face of complex trade-offs. Cameron brings experience and was a modernising influence on his party.

It also suggests a leader siding with the centre-right over his intractable hardliners. Sunak is surrounding himself with ever more Cameroons, notably Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, his deputy Laura Trott, Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, as well as other moderates.

There is another aspect to this. In the early days of his leadership, Boris Johnson described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” — a reference to the former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, famed as an economic and social interventionist. Johnson too favoured an active state, investing in the fabric of the nation, infrastructure, regional devolution and core public services.

By contrast, Sunak is essentially a “Brexity Cameron”. He believes in a smaller state, deregulation, global trade and, in spite of the current position, lower taxes. He has held out against the most hardline stance on China, seeking ways to maintain a business relationship. While less socially liberal than many Cameroons (as was Cameron himself), his modern, metropolitan demeanour reassures centrist supporters. Sunak’s misfortune is that it is Johnson’s model which is closer to where voters currently stand. The current middle-ground in politics is economically interventionist and socially conservative.

Having sacked the right’s most visible standard bearer, it is unclear how far Sunak really intends to go in alienating his hardliners. He was sufficiently concerned at the narrative of his reshuffle to tweak his appointments late in the day with a few tokenistic baubles for known rightwingers. For all his determination, no leader has been able to shrug off the open and unrelenting hostility of the Tory right.

And within his party, the narrative is now set in a way many centre-right Tories may come to regret. For in the post-match analysis that follows election defeat — an analysis which has already begun — it will now be far easier for hardliners to argue that the widely predicted election outcome is owned by the centrist, Remainer Conservatives, among whom they number the Brexiter-backing Sunak. To cite Braverman’s self-serving and vindictive departure letter outlining his multiple betrayals, defeat will be down to Sunak’s not being an “authentic Conservative”. The litany of unsuitable premiers and disastrous economic policies was neglected.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling blocking the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda will be held up by the right as vindication of her view that the UK must leave the European Convention of Human Rights — even though the court made clear that this alone would not make the difference. It is central to their charge sheet of overall weakness and failure to deliver tax cuts. Braverman’s dismissal, they argue, showed Sunak had no stomach for the Tory policies his electoral coalition demanded. One cabinet minister admits that no asylum seekers “will be on a plane before the election”. For all his immediate tough talk in response to the ruling, Sunak’s internal critics will place little value on his words and will feel empowered to argue that he has failed to “stop the boats”.

This doesn’t mean that Braverman will be the beneficiary. Her fan club is smaller than imagined and such open vituperation rarely wins over activists. The right would be wise to pick a less erratic champion. But if they own the narrative of defeat they can drag all contenders on to their angry territory. It does not require much imagination to see the next leader being compelled to support aggressive positions on immigration, pledges to quit the ECHR and UN refugee convention and attacks on the “elite” institutions and multiculturalism.

The next election is probably beyond salvation. Yet Sunak, in siding with moderates, has given his enemies the weapon to blame the centre-right for what follows. He cannot afford to spend his remaining time in office placing the blame for the probable defeat where it truly lies (not least because his hands are not clean either). His opponents have all year.

Perhaps Sunak can at least make the case for grown-up government and fiscal discipline. But the new foreign secretary’s presence offers a warning. Cameron once salvaged his party from its rightwing, too, only for his errors to hand it back to them. How fitting if he is there for the final act.

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