Braverman’s new world

By: Dexter Govan

Words scarcely do justice to the turbulence of the last two months. With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, a new head of state, two new prime ministers, two new chancellors, countless ministerial appointments and resignations, economic turmoil and the spectral (albeit brief) reappearance of Boris Johnson, scandals which at other points would have dominated the news cycle have been quickly passed over. Is it any wonder, then, that Suella Braverman’s dismissal as Home Secretary and her reappointment have been largely eclipsed by other stories? 

Of the many controversies which surround the Home Secretary herself, her transmission of classified information via a personal email barely ranks in the top ten. But from a constitutional standpoint, it is a remarkable symptom of our times that this relatively serious breach of protocol doesn’t appear to have damaged Braverman’s political career. By jumping ship before it sank, her options may even have improved. 

The Guardian, among others, detailed the nature of Braverman’s offence: it seems that the then and now Home Secretary sent a draft written statement on migration rules to a fellow MP via her personal email. Alongside security concerns, at issue here is that such documents can influence the markets, and as a result their distribution by private channels in advance of their publication is forbidden by the Ministerial Code. Jake Berry later suggested there had been multiple breaches of the Code, but it is also quite likely that Braverman took the opportunity to resign following arguments with Liz Truss over immigration. Braverman’s resignation statement certainly focused less on her contrition than on attacking her erstwhile boss. In this sense, her resignation might have been a deliberate ploy for advancement under a new administration. If so, her gamble has now paid off. 

Faced with this onslaught from a departing minister, Downing Street confirmed that Braverman had breached the Code in two regards, ‘firstly by sharing details of the policy before it had been formally signed off, and by sharing it using a private email.’[1] Steve Baker, Northern Ireland Minister and close friend of Krishnan Guru-Murthy, described Braverman’s breach as only ‘technical’. Another Conservative MP described the incident as ‘very minor’, and given Boris Johnson’s position that breaches of the Code should not necessitate resignation, one might say that Braverman was rather hard done by by being forced to resign at all. 

That her absence from the position lasted for only six days appears to have been enough for Rishi Sunak anyway. At his first Prime Minister’s questions, Sunak suggested yesterday that ‘the Home Secretary made an error of judgement but she recognised that, she raised the error and she resigned for her mistake.’[2] There are allegations the Prime Minister appointed Braverman in exchange for her support in the Conservative leadership election, but constitutional waters over breaches of the Code have been muddied for some years. 

To pick some illustrative examples, David Blunkett resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary in 2005 after failing to disclose information to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. More serious, in 2019, the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to resign after it emerged ‘there was “compelling evidence” he was responsible for the unauthorised disclosure of information from the National Security Committee.’[3] He was rapidly reappointed as Education Secretary by Boris Johnson. Under questioning in the Holyrood chamber last year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon refused to say whether she would resign if it emerged she’d breached the Ministerial Code. Eventually an investigation found she had not

Earlier this year the consequences of parties held in 10 Downing Street during national lockdowns rocked the Johnston administration. Under pressure from various formal and informal inquiries into the events of these gatherings, Boris Johnson amended the Ministerial Code. As the United Kingdom Constitution Monitoring Group made clear in its report covering these months, these changes did not address or resolve decreasing standards in public life. Beyond this, Johnson’s new foreword to the Code ‘appeared to present the text as applying to ministers rather than the premier, stressing the idea that he answered to Parliament and the electorate.’ All that seems clear is that any convention about resigning when found to be in breach of the Ministerial Code has been eroded in recent years. And so, we return to the case of our new Home Secretary.

Yvette Cooper MP has suggested that appointing Braverman ‘a week after she resigned for breaches of the ministerial code, security lapses, sending sensitive government information through unauthorised personal channels, and following weeks of nonstop public disagreements with other cabinet ministers’ demonstrated that the new Prime Minister was putting party before country.[4] Other accusations have since surfaced that Braverman’s breaches extend beyond those highlighted in her resignation. Yet even despite these issues, it seems clear that Braverman will continue on as Home Secretary under the new administration. 

This raises two worrying points relating to our constitution. First, it suggests that breaches of the Ministerial Code now have few lasting consequences for those committing them. Of course, other forms of regulation exist to penalise criminality and corruption, but if the Code itself can be undermined by a Home Secretary as well as by Prime Ministers, we may well question its value. That this latest breach occurred outside the Johnson administration highlights too that the eroding of constitutional standards and public accountability of the last three years extends beyond Boris Johnson himself. It seems clear this worrying trend is likely to continue in the short to medium term.

The second aspect of concern is that Braverman’s rapid resurrection further undermines the act of resigning itself. If, as our new Prime Minister suggests, it is enough simply to acknowledge our mistakes, notionally resign, and then be immediately reappointed, what value does the act of resigning even hold? 

It is easy to quip that Braverman has enjoyed a week-long holiday as a consequence of breaking the rules. There is a comfort in laughing off the absurdity of her reappointment so soon after an incident which should carry a severe penalty. This is surely a false comfort, though. Were it not for the cover of larger political storms, Braverman would likely have been left stranded by her behaviour in office. That she has been rescued at all is a damning inditement of our current political situation ­– the way in which it has occurred bodes ill for the future of our constitution. 

Dexter Govan is the communications manager and researcher of the Constitution Society. He holds a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and is a historian of unionism in Britain and Ireland.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] The Herald (25 October 2022), accessible at < >.

[2] BBC News (26 October 2022), accessible at < >.

[3] Civil Service World (2 May 2019), accessible at < >.

[4] The Guardian (25 October 2022), accessible at < >.