(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faced months of right-wing pressure to take more risks to rescue his flailing Conservative Party. On Monday, he took a gamble that exceeded all expectations — and opened a Tory split that could dog him all the way to a UK general election.
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Sunak brought back ex-premier David Cameron as foreign secretary in an extraordinary Cabinet reshuffle, rehabilitating a predecessor controversial among both centrists and the right for his role in the 2016 Brexit referendum. At the same time, he ousted Home Secretary Suella Braverman — a darling among party populists and key player in Sunak’s rise to power last year — after she challenged his authority over pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London.
Read more: Cameron Makes Surprise UK Cabinet Comeback in Sunak Reboot
The shock move led Conservatives from across the party to question Sunak’s political direction. In recent weeks, he has tacked to the right with a series of “resets” including paring back green policies and ramping up so-called culture war divisions. It would be hard to find a politician who fits that mold less than Cameron, who campaigned to stay in the European Union and whose support among more centrist Tories was key to returning the party to power in 2010.
One party official compared Sunak to a supermarket trolley, re-purposing a meme used by Tory advisers to describe former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s habit of lurching between policy ideas. Another similarly compared Sunak to a yacht veering right and left. A third pointed out the disconnect between appointing Cameron and Sunak’s Conservative Party conference speech last month, in which he criticized 30 years of collective failure under his predecessors and pledged to “lead in a different way.”
Allies of Sunak said he was forced into a reshuffle after deciding he could not keep Braverman, whose outbursts included an unauthorized criticism of the police ahead of pro-Palestinian demonstrations on Saturday. Keeping her in her post would have signaled that it was OK to defy Sunak, a Downing Street official said, adding that Sunak’s aides calculated that Braverman didn’t have enough support among Tory MPs to challenge his leadership.
They cast Cameron as an elder statesman who could show Sunak was running a serious government. Cameron-era Cabinet minister William Hague, who is close to Sunak, was instrumental in his return, as were deputy premier Oliver Dowden and other advisers in Sunak’s office who used to work for Cameron, they said.
In an article for the Times on Tuesday, Hague suggested Cameron’s appointment showed Sunak wanted to demonstrate a break from the “embarrassment” of the Johnson administration, where government appeared to be “conducted in a vile, tense atmosphere, dominated by foul-mouthed, incompetent advisers.”
New Conservative Party chairman Richard Holden told the BBC Tuesday that the Tories were a “broad church” and that Sunak had recalled Cameron due to his “experience” and “sense of duty to the country.”
Dowden had laid the ground for the reshuffle in meetings last week, Bloomberg reported at the time. Damian Green, leader of the self-described One Nation grouping of centrist Tory MPs, praised the changes as “very good news.”
Beyond Sunak’s officials, the interpretation was less flattering. One Tory strategist judged that ahead of a general election expected in 2024, Sunak had given up on attracting pro-Brexit “red wall” voters in England’s post-industrial regions to focus on the Conservative Party’s traditional southern base.
Appointing Cameron, who called the referendum to leave the European Union and then lost it, was effectively a concession that the coalition of voters who backed Leave-campaigner Boris Johnson in 2019 was now off the table, they said.
However, the strategist also warned that Cameron is not especially popular among so-called blue wall voters, either, because they blame him for losing the Brexit referendum. A snap poll by YouGov found just 24% of Britons backed giving Cameron a job, suggesting that while the removal of Braverman in favor of Cameron may play to centrist sensibilities, the electoral impact may not put much of a dent in the opposition Labour Party’s poll lead of about 20 points.
“As a way to distract attention from Suella Braverman it’s a great move,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. “If the Conservatives are trying to abandon the nasty party right-wingism that’s been their recent strategy and appeal to the blue wall it may be less successful because, after all, Cameron will have little chance to shape either environmental or immigration policy, even assuming he wanted to.”
Meanwhile, Members of Parliament on the right of the Conservative Party spent Monday plotting their response. One said the right had been purged from Sunak’s government. Another said options under discussion included an attempt to remove Sunak from office before the election, the formalizing of a Tea Party-style caucus to challenge government policies, and even the formation of a breakaway party that could work with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
It is unclear whether their calls for retribution will materialize into a tangible threat against Sunak. The premier had opened up two fronts with right-wingers, with Braverman on cultural issues and former premier Liz Truss on tax, and any challenge would hinge on whether the right can unite, the lawmaker said.
Within the party, about 80 to 100 MPs are seen as right-wing Sunak skeptics. Yet they are split into factions, and that estimate includes 50 who are strongly behind Truss and only about 10 who are primarily loyal to Braverman. Under party rules, 53 MPs would be required to write letters of no confidence in the prime minister to trigger a vote on his leadership.
Andrea Jenkyns, a junior minister under both Truss and Johnson, broke cover to say she had submitted a letter of no confidence. But according to one Tory lawmaker, Sunak will be safe unless the right can unify behind a candidate. And even then, they would struggle to defeat the premier in a confidence vote.
The bigger problem for Sunak may play out over a longer time frame. Former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who backed Truss for the Tory leadership last year, said Sunak’s moves on Monday risked driving voters to the right-wing Reform Party. That scenario plays to Tory fears of their vote share splitting and letting Labour win even in seats where they have large majorities.
At the very least, Sunak is likely to have made a vocal political enemy of Braverman, who warned on Monday: “I will have more to say in due course.”
Tory MPs expect the first flash point to come on Wednesday, when the Supreme Court passes judgment on the legality of Sunak’s flagship migration policy, which seeks to deport migrants who cross the English Channel on small boats to Rwanda. If the government loses the case, Braverman and Truss are expected to campaign for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. Sunak has so far said he wants to remain part of the convention.
Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary raises questions about how Sunak will respond to the court decision. Many Tories do not believe Cameron would have accepted the job if he thought Sunak was considering campaigning to leave the ECHR. However, one said Sunak could task him with negotiating a carve-out from the clauses in the convention that have seen the Rwanda flights blocked by the courts.
That would put Cameron in charge of another renegotiation in Europe, a decade after his ill-fated attempt to win concessions for Britain before the Brexit vote.
--With assistance from Emily Ashton, Joe Mayes, Ellen Milligan and Alberto Nardelli.
(Updates with comments from Hague, Holden, starting in seventh paragraph.)
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