Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Moderate Tories Believe Rishi Sunak's Reshuffle Shows He Is Embracing The Centre Ground

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

6 min read

The shock return of David Cameron and Rishi Sunak's reshuffle have triggered hope among the Conservative party's moderate MPs that the Prime Minister has decided he must campaign from the centre ground to have a fighting chance at the next general election.

Conservative MPs in the party's moderate, One Nation wing are on Monday night celebrating what they see as Rishi Sunak using his major Cabinet reshuffle to drag the Tories closer to the centre ground after accusations that he was lurching to the right. 

This group, which generally hold more socially liberal views than MPs elsewhere in the party, had been urging the Prime Minister to sack Suella Braverman as Home Secretary prior to her exit on Monday morning, and has expressed delight at the shock return to frontline politics of David Cameron — the former Conservative Prime Minister who is widely remembered as having moved his party towards the centre ground while he was its leader.

The One Nation group, which contains at around 80 Conservative MPs, is also buoyed by reshufle promotions for likeminded MPs Victoria Atkins and Laura Trott, who Sunak today made his new Health Secretary and Chief Secretary to the Treasury respectively.

"If you are a socially liberal, fiscally responsible, small state, moderate Conservative, this is a good day," one former minister told PoliticsHome on Monday afternoon.

"It also represents the PM showing he understands you don’t win elections by lurching away from the common, centre ground of politics."

A former Cabinet minister said: "Any sensible Prime Minister will have the full range of views around the Cabinet table, and will want a predominance of sensible wise voices doing the talking. Rishi has achieved this in the reshuffle."

The question of whether Sunak would remove Braverman had dominated the weekend leading into today's reshuffle. The erstwhile Home Secretary had prompted outrage among swathes of Conservative MPs after claiming homelessness was a "lifestyle choice", and tested Sunak's patience further when she wrote a contentious op-ed for The Times newspaper about Saturday's pro-Palestine march without 10 Downing Street's approval.

She was supported by a group of MPs on the right of the Conservative party, however, who agree with her hardline stances on issues like immigration and the weekend's march.

Moderate Conservatives who spoke to PoliticsHome felt that her being sacked, and then replaced by the former Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, is a sign that Sunak is less likely to listen to calls from the right of the Tory party to leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) as a way of stopping small boats crossings. Speaking about the ECHR in April, Cleverly told The Guardian: "European countries which are not part of the ECHR is a small club. I am not convinced it is a club we want to be part of."

Sunak's press secretary would not be drawn on suggestions that he was pulling his party away from the right when asked specifically about this claim on Monday afternoon.

"The theme of the reshuffle is a strong, united team. He wants a Cabinet that is focused on delivering the change that the country needs," they told reporters.

However, it is Conservative MPs in the moderate wing of the party who are feeling encouraged by the make-up of Sunak's new Cabinet, while MPs on the right of the party are complaining that they have inadequate representation at senior ministerial level.

One Tory backbencher said the move represented "grown up politics after the Suella drama". Another said it "gets the the heavy hitters back in and shows intent".

But an MP who opposes Braverman's sacking described Sunak's no10 as "like a driverless car", while Andrea Jenkyns revealed that she had submitted a letter of no confidence in Sunak to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservative party's 1922 Committee. 

A Conservative back bencher who isn't a huge supporter of Braverman expressed doubt about the decision to bring back Cameron, saying it appeared a "moment of slight desperation" in a bid to challenge Labour's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls.

"The Prime Minister wants to portray this as strengthening his team, but if I were a lawyer, I could equally add that perhaps there is a moment of slight desperation here in trying to do something bold," they told PoliticsHome.

Even a senior Conservative who was "delighted" by Cameron's return said the apparent shift to the Tory left by Sunak had left them confused about what the Prime Minister stands for. 

Braverman herself, who is tipped to be a future candidate to lead the party, said she would "have more to say in due course" following her sacking — a hint that she could be outspoken on issues like the ECHR from the Conservative back benches. 

The Prime Minister sacked Braverman over the phone on Monday morning, PoliticsHome understands. The pair are not expected to exchange letters as often happens when Cabinet ministers leave government — in another potential sign of frosty relations between them.

PoliticsHome reported at the weekend that team Sunak believed Braverman's ardent supporters, while vocal, amounted to a very small portion of the parliamentary Tory party.

Siobhan Aarons, Chair of the Tory Reform Group (TRG) which has close links to the One Nation group of MPs, said: "The TRG welcomes the decisive reshuffle from the Prime Minister who in many of his appointments clearly recognises the truism that elections are won from the centre ground, and with a capable team who can deliver."

One former secretary of state said Sunak's decision to appoint Cameron to the foreign office, which this morning left Westminster stunned, was an effective piece of media management by no10 as it blew the high-profile sacking of Braverman "out of the water". 

A government minister expressed the view shared by many Tories that the return of Cameron would boost the electoral prospects of vulnerable Conservative MPs in constituencies in so-called "blue wall" areas in southern England which the Liberal Democrats are set to target at the next general election.

A Lib Dem party source said the Prime Minister's decision to bring him back into the fold showed he was "openly running scared of the Lib Dems in the Blue Wall".

A snap YouGov poll published on Monday found that Cameron performed relatively strongly with 2019 Lib Dem voters (+11%) and the south of England (+1%) and London (+7%) when asked whether he would do a good or bad job in his new Cabinet role.

Overall, however, 38% of respondents said it was a bad decision by Sunak to appoint the former Prime Minister, while 24% said it was a good decision.

Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther.

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