Exasperated Tories Worry “Freelancing” MPs Are Damaging Fragile Party Unity
Home Secretary Suella Braverman attending Cabinet on Tuesday (alamy)
Tory WhatsApp groups were "alive" this week with backbench MPs complaining that Home Secretary Suella Braverman had undermined Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when she appeared to deviate from the government approach to immigration.
PoliticsHome understands Sunak, who is currently in Japan attending the G7 summit, is aware that a growing number of Tory MPs are unhappy with Braverman, though her position in Cabinet is still regarded as safe for now.
The Home Secretary was one of a number of MPs to speak at the National Conservatism Conference, organised by right-wing US think tank the Edmund Burke Foundation, and renowned for producing controversial soundbites on hot-button topics such as immigration and gender.
In her speech to the conference on Monday, Braverman said there was "no reason" why more Brits couldn't do jobs like fruit picking, which are heavily reliant on overseas workers, and that the country was at risk of forgetting "how to do things for ourselves". The comments were at odds with more pragmatic members of the Cabinet who advocate for an increase to foreign worker visas for industries struggling with labour shortages. Their position was vindicated on Tuesday by the government’s announcement of 10,000 seasonal visas for foreign fruit pickers – on top of 45,000 already in place for the sector.
Next week the Office of National Statistics (ONS) is expected to confirm that net migration to the UK has hit a record high, despite repeated promises by successive Conservative governments over the last 13 years to bring the number down. Former environment secretary George Eustice predicted that immigration numbers would need to go up before they go down in order to address workforce challenges in agriculture.
The awkward timing of the Home Secretary's remarks irked some Conservative MPs. “Why on Earth is she being allowed to freelance [on] policy?," one former minister complained.
Some MPs viewed Braverman’s speech as a criticism of Sunak’s government, and an indication that she still has one eye on a future bid to lead the Conservative party, although a source close to Braverman dismissed this interpretation as “nonsense coming from those with nothing better to do”. The source stressed that reducing migration was a part of the Conservative party's 2019 general election manifesto.
They told PoliticsHome that wanting more British people to harvest fruit and vegetables is a long-term mission and not mutually exclusive with the government decision this week to increase the number of seasonal worker visas for the coming year.
"Aiming for more British workers over cheaper, foreign workers is clearly a welcome goal and removed from what we’re having to do now to make up for those shortfalls."
But Braverman wasn’t the only Tory MP causing consternation among parliamentary colleagues at the National Conservatism Conference this week.
PoliticsHome understands that a number of backbenchers complained to the Whips Office about speeches by MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge Miriam Cates, and MP for Devizes Danny Kruger.
Kruger faced widespread criticism when he said marriage between a man and a woman was "the only possible basis for a safe and successful society".
Cates, meanwhile, claimed low birthrates were the biggest threat to the West, partly as a result of the devaluing of motherhood. She attributed a rise in self-harm and suicide among young people to “schools and universities openly teach[ing] that our country is racist, our heroes are villains, humanity is killing the Earth, you are what you desire, diversity is theology, boundaries are tyranny and self-restraint is oppression”. She was accused of using a term associated with antisemitism when she said that "cultural Marxism" was partly to blame for all of the above.
"Fucking bonkers" was how one exasperated Conservative MP described the event to PoliticsHome.
Another Conservative MP to view the event with some dismay was Tim Loughton, who felt some of the hardline rhetoric used this week risked making the party look divided.
"I'm not quite sure why some of my colleagues have felt it necessary to lend their voices to this conference," he told PoliticsHome.
"It just sort of gives the impression that we're arguing amongst ourselves."
Former Tory MP Alistair Burt, a respected voice in the moderate wing of the party, described the conference as "absurd" in an article for The House, and called on current Conservative MPs to give those involved "a very wide berth". The former government minister said the conference "seeks to define itself by offering challenges to propositions which either do not exist, to an imagined set of enemies, or are presented in such a two dimensional manner as to reduce complex issues to a simplistic 'either with or against us' confrontational agenda".
Moderate Tories PoliticsHome spoke to accused MPs on the right of their party of needlessly creating difficult headlines for Sunak at a time when they should be putting unity first, and hoped Sunak would assert his authority on those going rogue.
But several MPs who strongly support Sunak worried that the PM was losing momentum after a strong spell earlier in the year, which saw him strike the Windsor Framework for Northern Ireland, and are asking whether his five pledges will be enough to cut through with the public and significantly reduce Labour's polling leads. Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome, told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown last week that Sunak faced questions about his "grand vision" for the country.
While Sunak has been praised for restoring some unity after years of chaos and acrimony, this week will serve as a reminder to the Prime Minister that Tory peace cannot be taken for granted.
“I think most people acknowledge that we've got somebody [in Sunak] who is very smart, focused on delivery and is actually just really good at doing his job,” Loughton added.
“If they don't, they need – metaphorically – a bit of a slap.
“I hope [Sunak] will use his authority, which he's got now by delivering on certain things, to say to anyone who's tried to rock the boat: ‘wake up and smell the coffee!’.
“We've got a lot of work to do otherwise – we face a very, very serious result next year. We don't want to go back to what happened in 1997. And there are many of us who remember that, we were there.”
Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe