This week’s edition covers the actions of the new Prime Minister as well as the Scottish Independence campaign.
Wednesday 26 October 2022 was a highly important day for Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party. Fraught with instability, the Commons, and the wider public, needed to see whether he could unite his party to tackle the rumblings of a recession effectively. As arguably one of the most important PMQs of the year, it was imperative for all sides to make a mark.
Sunak’s controversial re-appointment of Suella Braverman to Home Secretary after she resigned from the post quickly came under fire as Keir Starmer questioned whether she was correct to resign from Truss’ Cabinet due to a “breach of security”. In Sunak’s response, he mentioned welcoming her back into a “united cabinet that brings experience and stability back to the heart of the government”, before stating that the Home Secretary will be “focused on cracking down on criminals and on defending our borders, while the party opposite remains soft on crime and in favour of unlimited immigration”. Starmer responded by bringing up his history in the CPS and the controversy surrounding Braverman’s sacking [see above]. Sunak riposted by bringing up the “15,000 new police officers on our streets” and claiming that the “party opposite will be backing the lunatic protesting fringe that is stopping working people going about their lives”. The debate between the two leaders continued with Starmer’s statement that “there is a new Tory at the top but, as always with the Tories, it is party first, country second” – a heavy hitting accusation – before raising the ‘non-Dom’ controversy that has surrounded Sunak on two occasions. To the economic questions, Sunak turned attention to Jeremy Hunt’s first activity as Chancellor, the Autumn Statement that will be out “in a few weeks”, as well as emphasising that the Conservatives will “always protect the most vulnerable”. He also mentioned that the main aim of the party was “a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of our borders and levelling up”.
The question of the energy crisis and benefits surfaced on multiple occasions: Ian Blackford (Leader of the SNP in the Commons) asked Sunak what he would do about the oncoming “winter of uncertainty”, and the “double whammy” as a result of the energy price guarantee being cut off and households facing “austerity 2.0 and real term cuts to the social security benefits that many rely on to survive”. Sunak replied that the Party would do what they could to “protect the most vulnerable”, that they have always and will continue to act in this way. Blackford then countered that, as Chancellor, Sunak had overseen the slashing of universal credit and presided over the worst levels of poverty in north-west Europe, adding that he hopes “he [Sunak] has learnt from his mistakes”. Blackford also commented on the Braverman re-appointment, calling for Sunak to sack the Home Secretary. Sunak answered by expressing his desire for the Home Secretary to “work constructively with the Scottish Government” so that they can “deliver for the people of Scotland” together on issues such as violent crime. Sunak finished by saying, “I believe in a strong United Kingdom”. Janet Daby (Labour, Shadow Minister for Faiths) also touched on her concern for her constituents and the potentially difficult upcoming winter, stating that “the cost of living is already up” before asking for a General Election.
Alyn Smith (SNP) brought up the potential for Scottish independence on European matters, claiming that “72% of the people of Scotland wanted back into the European Union”, asking the Prime Minister how long he could hold any level of credibility whilst denying Scotland’s democracy. Sunak batted down the question by “gently urging him to respect the result of the referendum that we had on this topic”; expanding upon this, Sunak was sure to mention that he remains committed to working together constructively with Scotland.
Stephen Kinnock (Labour, Shadow Minister for Immigration) questioned the Prime Minister’s supposed drive for integrity while he “is prepared to shamelessly swap red boxes for support”. Kinnock asked Sunak if he had sought any advice on security concerns surrounding Sir Gavin
Williamson, who was sacked for leaking sensitive information in 2019. Sunak flipped the question around to the opposition, pointing out that this happened four years ago, when the Labour Party were supporting Jeremy Corbyn “who wanted to abolish the nuclear deterrent, who wanted to leave NATO, who wanted to scrap our armed forces. We will not take any lectures on national security”.
The New Cabinet
Rishi Sunak’s tenure as Prime Minister has just started, and with this comes a new cabinet. Dominic Raab has been reinstated as Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice following his brief stint as a backbencher during the Truss premiership. Raab, of course, has had a long history in the Cabinet of the Conservative Party having first taken office in mid-2018 as Secretary of State for exiting the European Union, and being a near-constant presence ever since despite the instability within the party. Jeremy Hunt, a Cabinet mainstay due to his six-year stint as Health Secretary, retains his position as Chancellor after being appointed in the final days of Liz Truss’ cabinet, replacing an outgoing Kwasi Kwarteng. James Cleverly also keeps his role as Foreign Secretary, which was bestowed upon him by Truss. In fact, due to the nature of Sunak’s sudden takeover as Prime Minister, much of the Cabinet is the same as under Liz Truss: Suella Braverman and Ben Wallace are retained as Home Secretary and Defence Secretary respectively, the latter becoming somewhat of a stalwart as his fourth year in the role looms, whilst the former had an interesting six-day hiatus after resigning from Truss’ Cabinet on 19th October (for sending sensitive Home Office documents from her personal account). Sunak reinstating her has seemed to have created something of a stir within the Conservative Party. Michael Gove returns as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities after being dismissed by Johnson in July of this year. The Education Secretary is Gillian Keegan and Steve Barclay has been returned to office as Health Secretary, replacing Dr Thérèse Coffey who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, food and rural affairs. Channelling his inner John Major, Sunak has placed his main, and only, rival Penny Mordaunt as the Leader of the Commons. Other notable inclusions in the Cabinet include Nadhim Zahawi and Sir Gavin Williamson in the Cabinet Office, Simon Hart as Chief Whip, after his long stint as Welsh Secretary from December 2019-July 2022, and Kemi Badenoch as Secretary for Trade.
Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet has a lot of continuity with its predecessor; four of the key positions being retained. However, there is also a return of a large number of Conservative MPs who were removed by Truss, as well as the surprise inclusion of Michael Gove, who was accused of sowing discontent amongst the ranks of Johnson’s Cabinet. Sunak seems to have been far more meritocratic in selection than Truss’ Cabinet, choosing ministers with previous experience rather than ministers who necessarily supported the Prime Minister’s campaign.
Rishi Sunak’s ‘Manifesto’
A new Prime Minister and Cabinet is usually accompanied by a new policy programme; however, due to the special, and sudden, circumstances of Rishi Sunak’s appointment as Prime Minister, the current executive will be sticking with the 2019 Conservative Manifesto.
The 2019 manifesto hinged on two main points: Brexit and immigration reforms. With the Brexit negotiations all but wrapped up, the party will probably focus on ascertaining the post-Brexit international landscape, establishing new trade deals with further flung countries as the 2019 Conservative Party had pledged. Sunak also seems to be firmly maintaining the pivotal role that immigration policy played in the manifesto, as he has come out and stated that “controlling our borders” remains a priority.
The current Conservative cabinet is also determined to continue the ‘levelling up’ agenda of their predecessors, and this remained a focal point of Sunak’s rhetoric during the first PMQs of his tenure as PM.
Maintenance of the 2019 manifesto would also ensure that we do not see any income tax, VAT, or National Insurance rises, as well as the ‘triple lock’ on increases in the state pension. The government will also maintain their commitments to spending £6.3bn on disadvantaged housing and to reaching Net Zero by 2050. The NHS will most likely remain as an important priority for the Conservative Party under Sunak and will receive increases in its budget and staffing. Sunak will also continue with the Energy Prices guarantee throughout the winter to ensure that the British public aren’t plunged into a Winter of Discontent.
Supreme Court – indyref2
Throughout the Conservative (and Unionist) Party’s 12-year period of office, the Scottish case has for independence has grown. Earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP and First Minister, launched a fresh campaign for Scottish independence. On the 10th and 11th October, following Sturgeon’s request, the Supreme Court heard arguments by lawyers representing the UK and the Scottish Government on whether a second referendum can go ahead legally without permission from the Westminster Parliament (the Conservatives have consistently refused to hold such a referendum on the grounds that “now is not the time”). The UK Government believe that sovereignty ultimately lies with the Westminster Parliament and that legislating for a referendum on independence is not a devolved matter. The Scottish Government argued that, as the referendum is non-binding, it does not affect the Union of Scotland and England (a reserved matter) and so the Scottish Parliament can legally legislate for a referendum.
It will be months before the Supreme Court makes a judgement; however, if they do rule in favour of the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon plans for a referendum to be held in October of next year. But if the Supreme Court rule in favour of the UK Government, Sturgeon has said the next general election would be treated as a ‘de-facto’ referendum.