Sunak, Take 3: Why Britain’s leader is on His 3rd Political Makeover

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s dramatic shake-up of his cabinet on Monday was a bold gamble that tacking to the center will give him a lift in the polls that his lurch to the populist right this summer failed to accomplish.

But as Britain’s political establishment digested the news — the return of a more centrist former prime minister, David Cameron, and the ouster of a hard edged home secretary, Suella Braverman, who lashed out at Mr. Sunak on Tuesday — analysts said the prime minister’s pivot smacked of a politician casting about for an identity.

Far from a winning electoral formula, some predict that the reshuffle could fracture the coalition that delivered a landslide victory for the Conservative Party in 2019. By trying to shore up the party’s traditional heartland in the south of England, they said, Mr. Sunak risked alienating the working-class voters in the “red wall,” who once flocked to the Tory slogan, “Get Brexit done.”

“It doesn’t make any more sense than most of Sunak’s moves since the summer,” said Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “And it’s unlikely to make a blind bit of difference to his chances of turning things around before the general election.”

Mr. Bale said that in a general election, which is likely to be held next fall, Britons will cast their votes based on issues like the cost of living and rising rates on home mortgages, rather than primarily on identity politics.

This is Mr. Sunak’s third political makeover since he replaced Liz Truss as prime minister 13 months ago. First, he was a pragmatic technocrat, who stabilized the economy after Ms. Truss’s proposed tax cuts. Then he adopted divisive policies on climate change, immigration, and crime to try to put the opposition Labour Party on the defensive.

Keeping on Ms. Braverman, with her inflammatory language on immigration, was part of that strategy. Some predict she will emerge as an internal challenger to Mr. Sunak, leading a right-wing insurgency that could torment the prime minister, much as euro skeptic right-wingers tormented Mr. Cameron a decade ago.

On Tuesday, Ms. Braverman released a withering three-page resignation letter to Mr. Sunak, in which she said he “manifestly and repeatedly failed to deliver on every single one” of the policies that she claimed they had agreed on when she joined his cabinet and helped him to become prime minister. “Someone needs to be honest,” Ms. Braverman said, “your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time.”

For all that, there were few signs on Tuesday of a mushrooming rebellion within the party. While one Conservative lawmaker, Andrea Jenkyns, submitted a letter of no-confidence in Mr. Sunak, describing him as a leader who had been rejected by both the party’s members and the public, she was not followed by a flood of others.

Suella Braverman outside Downing Street last month. Her dismissal Monday from the post of home secretary led to a reshuffle of Mr. Sunak’s cabinet.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

It would take similar protests from a total of 15 percent of the 350 Conservative Party lawmakers to trigger a challenge to Mr. Sunak. Having changed their leader — and Britain’s prime minister — twice since the last general election, a further switch would stretch credibility.

Still, some analysts said Mr. Sunak’s pivot to the center is not without risks internally, since the ranks of Conservative lawmakers are filled with people elected in 2019 on a populist, pro-Brexit message. In addition to Mr. Cameron, who voted against Brexit, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, also voted to remain.

James Cleverly, whom Mr. Sunak moved from foreign secretary to replace Ms. Braverman at the Home Office, did vote for Brexit, but he is also viewed as a more moderate, less ideological figure. That leaves Mr. Sunak as the only conspicuously right-wing occupant of what are called Britain’s four great offices of state.

“Ending up with three moderates in the top four positions is not going to be great for his party politics,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as chief of staff to a former Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. “A centrist cabinet in a right-wing party is a dangerous combination for a prime minister.”

Mr. Sunak’s calculation, other analysts said, is that he will get credit for standing up to the party’s hard right among traditional Tory voters. In these Conservative strongholds, many affluent, cosmopolitan and more liberal voters were alienated by Ms. Braverman’s increasingly harsh rhetoric. But the big electoral threat in such regions often comes from the smaller, centrist Liberal Democrat party, rather than Labour.

In 2019, these traditional Conservative voters largely stuck with the party, while many former Labour voters in the north and middle of England — known as the “red wall” because of the opposition party’s campaign colors — were won over by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s populist campaign.

The problem for Mr. Sunak is that Brexit has faded as an issue, with most voters more concerned about the squeeze on their living standards, exacerbated by Ms. Truss’s disastrous impact on the economy, and the lamentable state of the National Health Service. Labour is now under the centrist leadership of Keir Starmer.

“There does seem to be a growing awareness in all wings of the Conservative Party, that it’s going to be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to hold together the coalition of 2019,” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University.

The appointment of former Prime Minister David Cameron as foreign secretary, and James Cleverly’s move to home secretary, has created a more moderate cabinet.Credit…Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At his party’s conference last month, Mr. Sunak made “an attempt to hold on to the ‘red wall,’ and what we’re seeing now is a kind of U-turn and focus on the ‘blue wall,’” Professor Ford said. “And the problem is that they can’t have both.”

Mr. Sunak’s attempt to put on a populist mantle failed for another reason.

While he shares much of Ms. Braverman’s thinking, he had not proved effective in selling it. His public image is of a “cosmopolitan, technocratic, California-loving, globe-trotting tech-bro type,” Professor Ford said. “That sort of anti-woke, anti-immigration politics just seems very jarring coming from someone who is perceived in that way, even though it’s very likely to be pretty close to his actual personal politics.”

One risk for the Conservatives is that their pivot gives more space to Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party once led by Nigel Farage, a right-wing firebrand. A reinvigorated Reform UK could siphon off votes from the Conservatives, allowing Labour to win back “red wall” seats under Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether moderate Conservatives will view the return of Mr. Cameron, who embodies many of their values, as the restoration of their brand of politics. Many of those voters blame Brexit for Britain’s stagnating economy, as well as for unleashing the populism that has dominated their party since 2016 and often seemed to caricature them as members of a privileged metropolitan elite.

Mr. Cameron, of course, called the referendum that resulted in Brexit. And after losing the campaign to stay in the European Union, he resigned.

“They have had a seven-year barrage of abuse from their traditional party and now, as a way of trying to win them back, that party puts into the House of Lords the guy who kicked off the whole barrage of abuse and then ran away,” said Professor Ford. “There’s no guarantee that it will work.”

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