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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Marina Hyde

Suella Braverman aboard a Chinook: proof that in politics, standards can always get worse

Suella Braverman disembarking a Chinook helicopter at Manston airfield, 3 November 2022
Suella Braverman disembarking a Chinook helicopter at Manston airfield, 3 November 2022. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

A rival emerges to Priti Patel’s personalised “HOME SECRETARY” flak jacket, now believed to form part of the memorabilia collection of a future chain of anti-immigration-themed family restaurants that will quickly become Britain’s only post-Brexit growth sector. (They will, ironically, be staffed by immigrants.) This rival is Suella Braverman’s Chinook, the military helicopter that the current home secretary used to fly the distance of precisely 19 miles between Dover and Manston yesterday, as she sought to aggressively cosplay a complex problem into simply going away. Will it work? More on the obvious precedents shortly.

Some of those following this Kent visit will also have noted a starring role for the phrase “on the ground”. “She’s on the ground,” explained the prime minister’s spokeswoman of Braverman, “visiting Western Jet Foil and Manston.” A No 10 spokesperson echoed this: “The home secretary was in Dover to receive an update on operations on the ground.” The official government readout of the visit explained that Braverman had been Braverman-ing “with Border Force officers, military and other personnel on the ground”.

Clearly, the home secretary belatedly wishes to look busy, but I can’t help feeling we can live without all this “on the ground” – the sort of overly martial language of grim dystopian movies set 10 minutes into the future. It casts the news as a Children of Men prequel, where the militarised state choppers in bad-guy government ministers and the whole of Kent is on the point of being turned into a maximum-security prison. Then again, if the jackboot fits.

The real-life government has now spent £120m and counting on a policy of deporting desperate people to somewhere thousands of miles away – and not one desperate person has been deported. No wonder there’s interest from Peru or Paraguay or any of the other countries the Sunak administration claims to be “in talks with” about extending its Rwanda scheme. It’s free money and you don’t even have to do anything.

Closer to home, an awful lot of complex things clearly need to be done in a system overrun by chaos and distress. Who’s going to do them? Suella?! Er, I don’t think so. Speaking in the blunt style I know she’d appreciate: Suella Braverman is an extremely low-calibre secretary of state. She’s not the sort of person you put in charge of anything you actually want to fix. Oh, she’s most definitely a mood/a vibe/a pose. She may be very good at positioning herself as a populist – but operationally, she’s toxic, and about as much use as getting Ralph Wiggum to do something. Her sole previous cabinet experience was as Boris Johnson’s attorney general, a role with all the prestige of being Donald Trump’s STD doctor. Or, indeed, Donald Trump’s attorney general. In Whitehall, Braverman was known during this period as someone who could be easily managed by more competent members of the Johnson team into giving the advice that was required.

Presumably because of Braverman’s decision earlier this week to describe the small-boats issue as an “invasion” – at the actual dispatch box – the home secretary herself seems to have been banned from saying things out loud. Which tells you quite a lot about where we are. As, indeed, do interjections from her allies, such as Jonathan Gullis, the missing link between the vegetable and mineral kingdoms who moonlights as a Stoke MP. Also this week, live on air, Gullis named a hotel to which migrants were being moved as an emergency after a firebomb attack on the centre in which they were being housed. Gullis has also explained that the government’s policy of deporting people seeking asylum to Rwanda is “fantastic”, “terrific” and a “deterrent”. And yet, given the numbers of people crossing the Channel are increasing significantly, how can that be? I don’t expect Jonathan to remember not to dox highly vulnerable families who’ve just escaped a terrorist incident, but I had banked on a grasp of basic vocabulary.

Then again, why have expectations? The unfortunate lesson of the past six years in politics is that standards can always get worse, and if anything could make you nostalgic for Priti Patel, it’s the advent of Braverman.

And so to Braverman’s predecessor. (OK, technically Suella’s predecessor in the role was Grant Shapps, because the recent run of home secretaries goes Patel, Braverman, Shapps, Braverman, with the double switcheroo between those final three – two of whom are Suella Braverman – taking place over precisely six calendar days at the end of last month.) In many ways, Patel and Braverman have a similar MO, with aggressive positioning prioritised over competent delivery. Chinooks, flak jackets, repulsively ludicrous ideas such as wave machines in the Channel, having pointlessly terrible relations with France and the EU – these are all poses/vibes/moods. They haven’t achieved nothing – they have achieved less than nothing, actively driving potential and vital allies and collaborators away.

As for how these ministerial stories play out … Like Braverman, Patel was once a darling of the Tory right, and very popular among members. Yet Patel ended up polling among the very lowest of all ministers with those same members, increasingly deplored precisely because of her failure to do anything meaningful, at all, about this same issue of small-boat crossings. To the bitter end, Priti was perfectly capable of spouting carelessly spiteful or incendiary things to annoy people like me, but … so what? The biggest joke of the summer was the preposterously cultivated talk about whether or not Patel would mount a leadership bid, because by then she knew as well as anyone that she might as well have launched a bid to lead Starfleet. I laughed out loud when she informed incoming mayfly PM Liz Truss that “my record speaks volumes”. Yes – it does.

We can confidently predict that Braverman will fail in the same way, because – as discussed here before – “annoying all the right people” is not a programme for government. It’s a perfectly adequate professional philosophy to have if you’re gnashing your veneers on GB News, but it doesn’t deliver policy and it doesn’t even approximate to professional competence.

Indeed, despite his deal with Braverman on the way to winning power, it doesn’t feel like Rishi Sunak will be deprived of multiple reasons to sack her. (He’d clearly prefer Robert Jenrick as home secretary anyway.) Then again, Braverman may soon consider her own political ambitions, and prefer the idea of resigning by choice, claiming she’s being stymied in this or that way by “the blob”, or “closet socialists” or “lefty lawyers”, or any number of convenient enemies, in a blame-shifting exercise aimed to distract from the fact that this issue is extremely complicated and Braverman is extremely ministerially talentless.

Rather like a Nigel Farage resignation, though, that wouldn’t be the last we heard of Suella Braverman. In fact, as the country’s economic prospects get darker and grimmer, I fear it would be the point at which she was only just getting started.

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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