ANDREW PIERCE reports on a brewing political storm
‘The WhatsApp groups are on fire – I can’t believe what’s happened today’: ANDREW PIERCE reports on a brewing political storm
It was just as Tory MPs were lining up for their breakfast in the canteen at Parliament’s Portcullis House yesterday morning that their telephones started vibrating.
Their WhatsApp groups had burst into life with alerts that David Cameron had been seen striding purposefully up Downing Street and then walking, bold as brass, through the front door of No 10.
Within seconds, many of the MPs had abandoned their queue for eggs and bacon and rushed to the nearest TV screens, talking animatedly into their phones. ‘What does it mean,’ said one former minister in a raised voice. Another bellowed back. ‘He must be returning to the Cabinet as Foreign Secretary. What other job can he take?’
The shock of Rishi Sunak bringing back Cameron – the first former prime minister to return to a Cabinet front-line role since Alec Douglas-Home in 1970 – diverted attention from the sacking of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary which had already infuriated many MPs on the Right.
In the Downing Street bunker, they had calculated that it would. Sunak’s advisers knew the reaction to the return of Cameron would dwarf the dismissal of Braverman, which had been widely expected. One member of the European Research Group, the so-called Spartans of the pro-Brexit campaign, said: ‘The mood was sulphurous in the Commons after we heard that Suella had been fired. But then I was dumbfounded to see Cameron walking back into No 10 like he owned the place. Suddenly, it was all people were talking about.’
The shock of Rishi Sunak bringing back Cameron diverted attention from the sacking of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary
But any satisfaction in No 10 that attention has switched from Braverman to Cameron will be short-lived. A poll released yesterday by Savanta, taken after the Tory conference in October, showed only 24 per cent felt favourable towards Cameron, while 45 per cent felt unfavourable. Hostility to the former prime minister is likely to be even higher on the Tory benches, judging by the rising tide of anger among backbench MPs and some ministers.
One message posted on a WhatsApp group was splenetic: ‘WTAF!!!! David Cameron had to resign because he failed to stand up to the EU and is completely gutless.’ The message pointed out that, because he will be a minister in the Lords, Cameron ‘will not be able to address the Commons at questions whilst we are actually witnessing two major conflicts.’ And, finally, it went on to dismiss him as ‘an unelected Foreign Secretary appointed by an unelected Prime Minister.’
Another Tory MP said simply of the growing mutiny: ‘The WhatsApp groups are on fire.’
With an election not expected until October or November next year, Sunak’s supporters believe the anger over Braverman and Cameron will subside rather than pose a threat to his leadership. They may have to think again. For Cameron’s appointment has compounded the fury already felt over her dismissal.
Dame Andrea Jenkyns, a member of the ERG, who is defending an 11,000 majority in the Red Wall seat of Morley and Outwood, was enraged. ‘I support Suella. Sacked for speaking the truth. Bad call by Rishi caving in to the Left,’ she said.
One message pointed out that, because he will be a minister in the Lords, Cameron ‘will not be able to address the Commons at questions whilst we are actually witnessing two major conflicts’
Cameron’s appointment has compounded the fury already felt over Braverman’s dismissal
David Cameron had been seen striding purposefully up Downing Street and then walking, bold as brass, through the front door of No 10
Another Tory MP in the Red Wall told me: ‘I’m shaking with anger. I think I will put my no-confidence letter in to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady. I no longer think there is even an outside chance that Rishi Sunak can lead us to victory at the next general election.
‘He has sacked Suella Braverman because she had the temerity to speak the language of ordinary voters which made her hugely popular in the Red Wall. I will tell David Cameron to stay away from my constituency if he offers to campaign for me at the next election. He will drive voters into the arms of Labour.’
Still more Tory MPs I spoke to yesterday said they will now have to discuss with their constituency association officials whether to include Sunak’s photograph and messages in their election addresses next year.
One ex-minister of state said: ‘Oh my God, I just can’t believe what’s happened today. The way I feel at the moment is that there is no place for Sunak anywhere in my re-election campaign. He’s made it a whole lot harder by dumping a popular minister and bringing back Cameron.
‘All you need to know about the scale of this political disaster is that the arch-Remainer Michael Heseltine has welcomed the return of Cameron. Perhaps Rishi can give Heseltine a job too. He’s vain enough to take it. And what about bringing back the turbo-charged super-snob George Osborne, the architect of Project Fear, so we really can be Rishi’s party of change. Change for the worst that is.’
Braverman is expected to make a major public intervention in the coming days as the Supreme Court delivers its verdict on the legality of the Government’s plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda
With an election not expected until October or November next year, Sunak’s supporters believe the anger over Braverman and Cameron will subside rather than pose a threat to his leadership
Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister, who herself sacked Braverman as Home Secretary over her use of a private email system for official messages, was in her office when the bombshell about Cameron dropped. While she stayed silent yesterday, there was no such reticence from Simon Clarke, a Red Wall MP, who was in her Cabinet.
He used a football analogy to twist the knife into Sunak by sharing a post about the England manager Gareth Southgate’s decision not to include winger Raheem Sterling in his national squad. ‘Some controversial choices here from the manager, putting it very mildly. Never wise to lack options on the Right wing – the squad risks being badly unbalanced.’
The anger of Right-wing Tory MPs will almost certainly spill over at tomorrow’s weekly meeting of the 1922 Committee in Room 14. Braverman may attend but she has told her supporters to keep their counsel in public for now as she is acutely aware most eyes are focused on the return of Cameron.
But even if they are holding back at the moment, there is no doubt that a political storm is coming. Braverman is expected to make a major public intervention in the coming days. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivers its verdict on the legality of the Government’s plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. Its response to the verdict could be a trigger for her supporters to go public if the judges throw out the plan.
One minister told me of his frustration with the Prime Minister’s failure to get a grip: ‘First we had the Tory conference which was supposed to be a major reset of Rishi’s premiership. His speech failed.
Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister, who herself sacked Braverman as Home Secretary over her use of a private email system for official messages, was in her office when the bombshell about Cameron dropped
‘Then there was the King’s Speech last week which should have been a game changer and set us up for the run into the next general election. People stopped talking about it the day it was delivered – it was so bland and predictable. Now Suella has been fired and, rightly or wrongly, people will now assume that Rishi thought it was right for the pro-Palestine march to go ahead. They will think he is on the side of the woke police even though he actually wasn’t.’
At the weekend, there was a last-ditch attempt to save Braverman when veteran MP Sir John Hayes, her unofficial leadership campaign manager, organised a letter to be signed by MPs and peers demanding that Sunak would not sack her.
Just over 60 signatures came forward, with around 32 of them MPs. Sunak, of course, ignored it – not least because it had not reached the magic number of 53 MPs’ signatures required to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister.
But, as one senior MP told me, they should be worried in No 10. ‘Last week they dismissed Suella’s support on the backbenches as numbering no more than six MPs,’ he said. ‘Well she got over 30 signatories on that letter. If people knew that Cameron was coming back, the figure would have been much closer to the 53, even though there is very little appetite for a leadership contest.’ He then added ominously: ‘No appetite… at the moment.’
Another Tory MP in the Red Wall said he had received dozens of texts from constituents saying they would no longer be able to vote for him. He added: ‘There must be someone in Downing Street who lies awake at night saying: ‘What can I do next to ensure we lose the next general election’.
‘Whoever that person is, this is their best effort yet. David Cameron may look good on the world stage as Foreign Secretary but he will look bloody awful in a back street boozer behind the Red Wall. We have now officially given up on trying to win Sunderland. This is all about trying to save posh people in Surrey.’