Repetition Compulsion

James Butler

Suella Braverman finally goaded Rishi Sunak into sacking her as home secretary yesterday morning. The nominal cause was the editorial Braverman wrote for the Times last Thursday, which libelled pro-Palestinian demonstrators as ‘hate marchers’ and criticised the police for ‘playing favourites’. Number Ten has since briefed that its suggested edits for the piece were ignored. Braverman’s baseless claim of threats to remembrance services at the Cenotaph helped mobilise hundreds of far-right counter-protesters; responsibility for the drunken violence and sporadic racist attacks against demonstrators returning home lies with her.

The article in the Times concluded a high-profile kamikaze run of hard-right culture war interventions. She had earlier described street homelessness as a ‘lifestyle choice’, floated the idea of making it illegal to give tents to homeless people, and briefed the press that she was pressuring Sunak to call a snap election over the ‘invasion’ by migrants on small boats.

The view among lobby journalists is that she was trying to engineer her exit – freeing her to pursue a long-run bid at the Tory leadership – if she couldn’t prompt Sunak to a more enthusiastic embrace of reaction. Her presence in government was a sop to the increasingly powerful faction of outright social reactionaries in the Conservative Party: Sunak made her departure an issue of constitutional propriety – a home secretary’s direct criticism of police operational decisions – though this barely conceals the rancour between the two. The same fig-leaf was used to boot Braverman in the dying days of the Truss era – an example of the repetition compulsion now plaguing British politics.

Openly seeking conflict with Downing Street was a new step for Braverman, but her stances are not novel. She has long been an ambassador for the swivel-eyed turn in British conservatism. Her spells on the backbenches have been marked by the repeating of conspiracy theories about ‘cultural Marxism’, apologia for the British Empire and attacks on the European Court of Human Rights. In office she has been showily cruel, professing to dream of deportation flights to Rwanda.

Her ideology is shared by hard-right factions of MPs such as the New Conservatives and the Common Sense Group, who see it as the grounds for Tory renewal. It has little to say on economics, though it occasionally gestures to low taxes. It is bedevilled by a sense of national weakness, which drives an obsession with migrants, transgender people and ‘woke’ enemies within. As attorney general, Braverman was impatient with checks on executive power such as human rights law or judicial review. This strain of chauvinism has always had a home among Tories, especially the grassroots; its recrudescence suggests how discredited and exhausted the varieties of neoliberalism proffered by the top of the party have become. Its adherents claim it is the natural political disposition of ‘red wall’ voters and key to their retention.

That is less obviously true than some Tory politicians would like to believe. Braverman is widely disliked – YouGov offers her a net approval rating of -26 – and most of her red wall ‘New Conservative’ parliamentary backers are facing electoral annihilation. It is true that some 2019 Tory switchers are socially conservative, but the Braverman gambit presumes this is the only salient detail. The economic pain of the last year, the evaporation of 2019’s promises, with Brexit long past done – where are those forty hospitals? – and a crisis-wracked winter are all likely to be stronger determinants for voters.

The legislative wasteland of the King’s Speech last week suggests Sunak is also unwilling or unable to face this problem. Braverman presents her factional programme as a solution to the forthcoming electoral armageddon, but it is really an explanation laid in advance – to be cited when she vies to lead the party’s parliamentary rump in opposition.

The National Conservative position has less organic support than media attention and funding. Attacks on migrants or the sins of the woke garner easy headlines and adulatory airtime on GB News. The CCHQ social media graphic which announced James Cleverly as Braverman’s replacement at the Home Office announced that he will ‘stop the boats’. He won’t: Braverman made the same pledge and also failed. Without significant spending on border policing, the reopening of safe legal routes or renegotiation with Europe, the flow will continue. There is neither appetite nor aptitude in the government for any of those.

Braverman exhibited a common political vice in preferring press attention to concrete political achievement. Her predecessor, Priti Patel, had the same flaw. Theresa May was less ostentatiously cruel than either, but her assiduous interest in actually running her department means her approach to migration has endured: the hostile environment still thrives. That’s why migrants end up in tents.

It would be complacent to dismiss Braverman’s ideology as crackpot flim-flam gussied up by a press which feeds on controversy. Jan-Werner Müller – writing in the latest LRB on Poland and Hungary – suggests that retrograde social change need not be an elite response to popular demand, but can be initiated from above and create or expand its own popular constituency. It is hard not to read the British political-media nexus in this light, especially the hedge fund wealth sponsoring the new-right news channels and magazines. Its stars talk up the threat of Reform – the successor to the Brexit Party – as a means of disciplining the Tories from the right; Jacob Rees-Mogg, currently paid more than £29,000 a month by GB News, raised just such a threat in response to Braverman’s departure.

Few people outside the closed loop of new right media production take Reform seriously, though it is possible there are a few marginals where they may split the Conservative vote. Esther McVey’s return to cabinet as ‘common sense tsar’ is both a full-frontal assault on irony and a genuflection to GB News, which has paid her nearly £85,000 for her shows over the last twelve months. For critics of the Tory Party it is cheering to consider that every conciliatory gesture to Reform further erodes the liberal end of the Conservative coalition (and vice versa); it is less cheering to have to live under the paralysis this produces.

The unexpected return of David Cameron to government as foreign secretary – perhaps another repetition compulsion – has already been interpreted as an attempt to staunch the flow of voters to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. But it also suggests that Sunak may have looked at his 350 MPs and thought them all too corrupt, criminal or scandal-ridden, untrustworthy, unhinged or plain stupid to do the job. Cameron is hardly untainted goods, and many liberals rightly blame him for mishandling the Brexit referendum and accelerating the rightward shift of the party evident in its 2019 intake – but he also sustained stronger, more favourable ratings than any party leader since.

The major blot on Cameron’s post-ministerial reputation, however, is his involvement in the Greensill Capital collapse. This is often called a lobbying scandal – because Cameron used his government contacts to try to divert public money to rescue the firm – but it is really a wider and more damning story about profit derived from power and access in British politics, the weakness of regulatory bodies, and the ‘revolving door’ culture that Cameron himself once promised to end. Britain’s mutual exoneration club quickly brushed serious scrutiny or the possibility of reform aside, but criminal investigations remain live in several countries, and Greensill himself currently faces a criminal case in Switzerland.

Cameron’s emollient announcement of his new role brushed disagreements with Sunak – most recently over HS2 – to one side, and spoke of a ‘daunting set of international challenges’ facing Britain. It is true that Cameron’s clubbability and personal connection to global leaders may prove a boon. He led the way in detoxifying Narendra Modi, lifting the diplomatic boycott imposed on him after the 2002 massacres in Gujarat. He had once implored Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, but when he was in office Haaretz wondered if Cameron was the ‘most pro-Israel British PM ever’. Early in his tenure, he altered British law on universal jurisdiction to prevent arrest warrants being issued for visiting Israeli officials accused of war crimes. His fervent embrace of China – having pushed for Xi Jinping’s state visit in 2015 and sat as vice-chair of the £1 billion China-UK investment fund – will find fewer enthusiasts among today’s Tories.

Neither Cameron’s chequered record nor the difficulty in properly scrutinising a foreign secretary who sits in the Lords will make much impact on the wider electorate. A Tory strategist might say that Sunak has rid himself of a hostile and unreliable presence in cabinet, and Cameron’s undoubted experience means the prime minister can turn his attention to the dire polls. But his curious exercise in necromancy will do little to alter Sunak’s electoral chances, given how little the government proposes to do about the fundamentals, with an NHS winter crisis looming. Braverman will no doubt launch her post-election leadership campaign immediately, supplying endless attack editorials to whoever will host them – starting, presumably, with the Supreme Court judgment on the Rwanda scheme due tomorrow.

Cameron is right that the challenges facing us are daunting. It makes it all the more disturbing that British politics seems stuck in a barren holding pattern, its government unwilling to change anything but also unwilling to depart.


  • 15 November 2023 at 7:33pm
    Evelyn Bowles says:
    Political leaders around the world are each busy performing their own versions of the Wizard of Oz for their electorates. Performances meant to convey that they have some control over the material conditions of their populations. Whereas the reality is that they can merely press small leavers in the global financial system with little idea of the likely effect, whilst this very system is interacting catastrophically with the planet. The current flow of migrants is fed by a multi-faceted climate crisis - which in turn is feeding conflict - further adding to the flow. Western inaction in the face of the Israeli/Palestinian disaster unfolding daily will produce greater pressure on UN resources already stretched supporting the refugees of innumerable unresolved conflicts around the globe. I cannot think of one single British politician who is telling the truth about the many causes and true potential of the so-called 'small boat problem'.

  • 15 November 2023 at 9:01pm
    Ian Gaunt says:
    Spot on

  • 16 November 2023 at 8:51am
    Camus says:
    Watching this latest episode in the drama (or is it a farce.?) playing out in the corridors of power from a distance, it is difficult to grasp why so many people actually swallow the nonsensical claim that the threat of banishment to Rwanda will 'stop the boats'' as the prime minister so trenchantly stated yesterday evening. He has the weird knack of coming up with ideas that actually do more harm than good. The famous "Eat out to help out" campaign was top of the list for sheer stupidity until now but claiming that " stopping the boats" will end the migration problem must have led to more scenes of doubt and despair in Number 10 than the outbreaks of anger from Mr. Cummings .

  • 16 November 2023 at 3:08pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    And now you have James Oxymoron for Home Secretary, at least he has fewer ideas of his own that could be as damaging as Cruella Braverman's and Priti Patel's.

  • 17 November 2023 at 1:48pm
    Howard Medwell says:
    One difference between the Tories and their Labour opponents is that the Tories, unlike Labour, are not scared of a spell in opposition. For Labour, opposition is a kind of non-time, at best, a time for tightening up party discipline and buffing up electoral appeal; for Labour, politics does not exist beyond the polling booth. The Tories, on the other hand, understand that politics - real politics - goes beyond the electoral parlour game. Politics exists, takes place, wherever ordinary people discuss, complain, think - especially when they get the impression that political events are impinging upon their lives and the lives of people like them. Braverman and her cohorts know that Sir Keir Starmer's timetabled triumphant entry into Downing Street will soon be followed by a surge of feelings of disappointment, disillusion, frustration, and they are determined that these feelings shall find a radical right-wing, rather than a radical left-wing, medium of political expression. That, even more than the inevitable - and not particularly interesting - career moves, is what she is getting ready for.

    • 18 November 2023 at 8:58am
      prangman says: @ Howard Medwell
      Spot on. This is what Starmer seems not to realise. His determination to avoid radical change, or even spend a penny extra on public services, seems doomed to only further the kind of resentment that will strengthen and embolden a radical right tory party waiting in the wings. It has to be cut out at the roots.

    • 19 November 2023 at 11:35am
      Rowena Hiscox says: @ Howard Medwell
      Not sure about the prospect of widespread disappointment with the next government. It seems to me that said government will face the lowest expectations in history, because who now believes that any group of politicians are capable of changing anything for the better? Even if they wanted to, but most politicians nowadays are shrewd enough to prefer attention to power.

      After the current chaos, even the managed decline Starmer intends to preside over may come as a blessed relief. If Labour manage to avoid any blatant corruption or gratuitously annoying people with too much cultural posturing, they'll probably be able to cling to office for a good while, which is all they seem to desire.

      For a glimpse of the future, look at Wales, where the government has given up even trying to pretend that it can do anything about a ramshackle NHS or collapsing infrastructure; instead it whiles away its days with pet projects and displacement activity.

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