David Cameron was smuggled into No10 by the back door last week for drinks in Rishi Sunak’s study – suddenly the reshuffle was on: JASON GROVES goes inside the lead-up to – and fall-out from – the PM’s sacking of Suella Braverman
By the time he lined up alongside Rishi Sunak at the Cenotaph on Sunday morning, David Cameron already knew he was on his way back to government.
The former prime minister had been approached a full week earlier about returning as Foreign Secretary and had not hesitated for long.
But as he stood stony-faced in Whitehall he gave no clue that he was about to make the most dramatic return to government since Peter Mandelson was recalled by Gordon Brown 15 years earlier.
Mr Sunak was also giving nothing away. When he was approached by Mrs Braverman at the Cenotaph service for a brief conversation he was ‘non-committal’ about her future. Less than 24 hours later he picked up the phone to inform her that her Cabinet career was over – at least for now.
The idea of conducting a big reshuffle has been floating around in Downing Street for months. Until last week, Mr Sunak had all but decided to delay the big shake-up until next year.
By the time he lined up alongside Rishi Sunak (right) at the Cenotaph on Sunday morning, David Cameron (left) already knew he was on his way back to government
The former prime minister had been approached a full week earlier about returning as Foreign Secretary and had not hesitated for long
But two interventions by Suella Braverman persuaded him that he could wait no longer before removing his maverick Home Secretary.
In the first, on the weekend before the King’s Speech, Mrs Braverman had launched into an outspoken attack on rough sleepers, saying that Britain’s streets were being taken over by rows of tents occupied by people ‘living on the streets as a lifestyle choice’. It was around this time that Mr, now Lord, Cameron came in to the frame.
Mrs Braverman’s comments provoked a backlash, not just from the public but from Tory MPs, including some on the Right.
‘The Whips were being bombarded with calls from MPs,’ said one Whitehall source. ‘You would be surprised by some of the names involved.’
The public outcry forced the PM to delay the introduction of the flagship Criminal Justice Bill on Wednesday, which was intended to include measures to ban the provision of tents to people who had refused a place in a hostel. Sensing the danger, Mrs Braverman decided to intervene again, to change the narrative with a hard-hitting newspaper article accusing the police of being biased towards pro-Palestine marchers.
The broad argument that the police have gone too easy on some of the anti-Semitic hate on display is one that has been made by Mr Sunak himself.
But the language deployed, accusing the police of bias, and likening the protests to intimidating sectarian marches seen in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was certain to cause a row and increase tension with the police.
The idea of conducting a big reshuffle has been floating around in Downing Street for months
To make matters worse, No 10 had directly told her to tone down the language and she had gone ahead regardless.
When he was shown the article on Wednesday night, the exasperated PM told aides: ‘She’s just not a team player.’ Allies of Mrs Braverman had hoped that the article would put her on safer ground following her intervention on the homeless.
In fact, it accelerated plans to remove a Home Secretary who had long been suspected of using the job to burnish her future leadership credentials.
Mr Sunak’s aides feared that she could try to make a martyr of herself by resigning – perhaps as soon as this week, if the landmark judgment on the Government’s Rwanda deportation scheme goes the wrong way. The time to act was now, they told him. Secret plans to move her were already well advanced – a fact that will reinforce the belief of her allies that Mr Sunak ‘never’ wanted her in the job. Government sources said that there had been ‘multiple occasions’ when her appetite for grabbing headlines had got in the way of good government.
‘On policy they are not that far apart,’ said a friend of the PM. ‘But next year there is going to be an election and he needs a united team.’
READ MORE: Cabinet Reshuffle LIVE: David Cameron returns to government, Steve Barclay demoted, Victoria Atkins becomes Health Secretary and James Cleverly takes over from sacked Suella Braverman
The PM asked chief whip Simon Hart to canvass MPs on Thursday about the Home Secretary and was told that just six were willing to defend her to the hilt. The number is heavily disputed by her allies, who accuse Mr Hart of moving against her, but the assessment was enough to persuade the PM that he could ride out any revolt from the Right of the party.
The plan to bring back Mr Cameron was already well under way. The PM’s mentor William Hague was considered but he had already made clear he would not return to government.
Some senior Tories say that Lord Hague suggested Mr Cameron for the job. Allies of the PM insist it was his own idea and say he had been increasingly using him as a ‘sounding board’ in recent months.
At the start of last week, Mr Cameron was smuggled in to Downing Street by a back door to discuss the potential for a sensational return. Over a drink in the PM’s study, the two men agreed the outline of a comeback deal.
Mr Cameron would use his network of contacts and status as a former leader to turbocharge Britain’s foreign policy.
In return, he would drop his lucrative and controversial business interests and agree to toe the line on issues where he has publicly disagreed.
On Friday, Mr Cameron called back and formally agreed to a move that might offer a chance to rehabilitate his reputation. The reshuffle was on. That still left some awkward conversations.
James Cleverly had to be persuaded to leave the Foreign Office, which he had publicly lobbied to keep. One Whitehall source claimed he was ‘fuming’ about being moved to the Home Office. More concerningly for Mr Sunak, a string of capable middle-ranking ministers told him they were baling out. Jeremy Quin, Neil O’Brien, Jesse Norman and Will Quince all informed the PM they were not interested in another job.
While none were blunt enough to tell him they think he is going to lose, the message came through loud and clear.
‘It is pretty ominous to be losing ministers of that calibre,’ a Cabinet source said. ‘They think the writing is on the wall.’
And then there is the reaction from the Right. The late decision to appoint Esther McVey as a ‘minister for common sense’ is designed to persuade MPs that the change of personnel does not indicate a change of direction.
But, unusually, there was no exchange of letters between the PM and Mrs Braverman – and she made clear she will have ‘more to say’ in the coming days.
Her allies were scathing about the reshuffle, saying the return of Mr Cameron was designed purely to distract from a potential row about her removal. One said: ‘He has made his move, she has yet to make hers. Let’s see how things play out when she does.’
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