LONDON — When Rishi Suank reshuffled his Cabinet this month, he hoped to calm his party’s jitters over immigration.
The U.K. prime minister’s grand plan was to deploy the charming James Cleverly as his new Home Secretary, replacing the divisive Suella Braverman with another Brexiteer — but one who has been instrumental in fostering more cordial relations with European capitals.
“He was a Leaver himself, and a big Boris [Johnson] supporter, and he is very collegiate,” explained one U.K. government official closely involved in the reshuffle, in the days after Cleverly’s appointment.
The hope in No. 10 was that as an amiable Brexiteer from the center-right, Cleverly — the MP for Braintree — would calm both sides of the warring Conservative party as the government tries to press ahead with its flagship Rwanda policy to combat undocumented migration.
But the policy was ruled unlawful by the U.K. Supreme Court within days of his appointment and the government is still scrambling to respond.
And Cleverly’s charisma and Brexiteer credentials have not been enough to shield him from the ire of the Tory right.
Tory MPs exploded with anger over the weekend after he told the Times newspaper people should not “fixate” on the Rwanda migration scheme, and warned that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights — a radical solution favored by many right-wing Tory MPs —would jeopardize “key co-operation” with international partners.
He used the same interview to warn against “using hyperbolic phrases” about legal migration numbers — less than 48 hours after MPs reacted in fury at new stats showing net migration into the U.K. had topped more than a million people over the past two years.
“I think it is dangerous to dismiss concerns of that kind as hyperbole,” said former minister John Hayes, president of the New Conservatives caucus of Tory MPs lobbying for tougher immigration legislation, and a close ally of Cleverly’s predecessor Suella Braverman.
In the House of Commons Monday, Cleverly faced hostile questions from his own backbenchers. One, James Morris, specifically raised his Times interview, questioning exactly what government policy now was.
Cleverly’s comments were “out of touch with what the reality is,” complained another Tory MP pushing for tougher migration laws, and granted anonymity — like others in this article — to speak candidly about internal party matters.
“Rwanda is about the government’s competency and ability to deliver, and that’s why that is such an important policy, and that’s why the Times interview went down very badly,” the MP said.
“It just felt very out of touch with, particularly Red Wall constituencies [in post-industrial parts of the north of England], and fed into the narrative that it’s kind of been given up on.”
Allies of Cleverly insist he won’t be distracted by the backbench backlash.
“People can spend their time shouting on the sidelines with all sorts of ill-founded, ill-willed nonsense,” a government official close to Cleverly said. They insisted the Home Secretary was “spending his time focussed on delivering the actual work on behalf of the British people: the mission to stop the [migrant] boats and control our borders.”
“Nothing he has said actually undermines that mission,” they added. “Bystanders have time to chatter — he’s got work to do.”
In the days after the reshuffle, Sunak allies were cock-a-hoop at what they viewed as a masterstroke of sending former prime minister David Cameron back around the world as foreign secretary, and using the genial Cleverly’s diplomatic skills — honed during his own spell at the Foreign Office — to calm internal tensions over immigration.
Braverman had been rarely out of the headlines thanks to her abrasive rhetoric, and openly defied No. 10 with an unsanctioned newspaper article accusing senior police officers of being biased in the policing of protests.
“The fact it is Cleverly not Suella automatically makes it a lot less divisive. We are really hoping people will be able to coalesce around [the new Rwanda bill,]” the current government official quoted above had boasted, shortly after the reshuffle.
But a former government official close to the party’s right, also granted anonymity because they are unable to speak candidly in their new career, was scathing of the appointment.
“I don’t think they really gave it that much thought beyond — ah he’s a Brexiteer, so the right probably like him, he’s quite mild-mannered so the [centrist] One Nation lot will like him. Inevitably it’s all blown up in their face because James is in the completely wrong department for him, and he knows it,” the ex-official said.
The same person described Cleverly as a “London Tory” who had played a minimal role in the referendum campaign. It had “long been known that James has been very soft around immigration,” the anonymous MP quoted above said.
Winning over the left
But while Cleverly has irked the right, his tone has won supporters in the so-called One Nation group of centrist Conservative MPs.
“It’s a welcome note of reality and maturity to the debate. I am more than happy with what he is saying. Good on him,” one former Cabinet minister in the One Nation group said.
They cautioned MPs in the center of the party would be “watching very carefully to see if there are any unnecessary clashes with [Britain’s] international law obligations,” and said the “moderate, sensible wing of the party” was gearing up to “assert its strength.”
The government official quoted at the top of the story noted that the opposition Labour Party is far more likely to back a One Nation rebellion aiming to soften tough new immigration laws than it is to support something draconian put forward by the Tory right. For No. 10, the parliamentary danger lies with the Tory moderates.
But the former official quoted above believes the right still poses a danger to Sunak, with many MPs willing to submit letters of no confidence in his leadership.
For his part, Cleverly was on Monday still insisting he would do all he could to drive down small boat arrivals, and was careful not to repeat his claim the Rwanda policy was not the “be all and end all” of migration policy.
But the damage may be done.
On the prospect of Cleverly redeeming the situation with the Tory right, the former government official gave a stark assessment. “It’s over.”