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This week Rishi Sunak is mainly defying the Tory right. With Jeremy Hunt as chancellor, James Cleverly newly installed as home secretary and David Cameron’s surprise return as foreign secretary, the top three jobs in his government are now in the hands of centre-right pragmatists, even if they hardly offer up the image of change the prime minister was keen to wrap himself in.

The only discernible message from the sacking of Suella Braverman as home secretary and the second coming of Cameron is that Sunak has broken with the hardliners and culture warriors who are alienating moderate Tory voters. The prime minister has decided there is no future in trying to appease the hardest of his hardliners and is now prioritising what he hopes will be understated delivery over noisy failure. Allies say he is removing underachieving ministers and replacing them with those more likely to be effective. Sunak has also topped up his team with real and politically unthreatening ministerial experience — though whether voters will look at Cameron and see a welcome image of serious, stable leadership must be debatable.

But Sunak is running through political strategies at some speed. Given a predictable backlash among the noisiest of his MPs, it remains to be seen how long this one holds. The risk is that he has unleashed a determined angry caucus who will destabilise his premiership as part of a push to seize the leadership after the election. He will also embolden the Faragist ReformUK. There is more to come from this reshuffle, which may restore some balance, but the Tory right will see this a big defeat and will not easily be calmed. 

The sacking of Braverman was inevitable and overdue. Sunak never really wanted her at the top of his cabinet; her appointment was the grubbiest of the grubby deals forced on him to secure the leadership. While they did disagree on some issues, including the levels of legal migration and whether or not to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, the real reasons for discord lay in her intemperate unfiltered remarks, inability to function as a team player and ineffectual performance as home secretary.

Leadership ambitions are a given at the top level but not Braverman’s erratic disloyalty. She may have believed what she was saying but she was also playing a double game as she positioned herself for a future leadership election. Braverman spent a year railing against her own department, alienating moderate Conservatives with her unrestrained language while leaving the hard work of tackling illegal immigration to her minister of state, Robert Jenrick, and Sunak himself. Critics link her attacks on the police and pro-Palestine marchers to the far-right violence around the Cenotaph last weekend (although the rightwing media’s role in stirring them to action should not be neglected).

Meanwhile her replacement, James Cleverly, has distinguished himself as foreign secretary by his moderate manner and ability to win friends. A longstanding Brexiter, Cleverly is also a team player, a figure from the centre-right and an opponent of the UK leaving the ECHR.

But it is Cleverly’s replacement which really caught Westminster by surprise. Cameron’s return from a fairly ignominious exile offers pros and cons. The positive case is that he is experienced and serious, a former world leader with a good grasp of foreign affairs and the diplomatic landscape. He is a better choice than most of the cabinet alternatives, though one might question why Cleverly himself had to be moved. 

Against this, the list of Cameron’s foreign policy achievements is pretty short. It is not clear that he boasts many significant global allies. His Brexit negotiations were calamitous for his cause. He was also badly damaged by the Greensill lobbying scandal. This may partially explain his desire to ensure a different final chapter of his political career. 

While Cameron will be expected to take the Sunak line, his position on a number of key issues will alienate many Tory MPs. He opposed the cut in the overseas aid budget; he was a clear opponent of Brexit; he can be expected to oppose leaving the ECHR and, perhaps most contentiously among his colleagues, he pushed the policy of closer engagement with China. While his party was becoming ever more hawkish, Cameron was building up his links with Beijing, working on plans for a UK-China investment fund. His return also directly links Sunak to the period of austerity most Tories wish to forget.

Sunak’s reshuffle has therefore simultaneously improved the top of the government and highlighted its core weakness. The need to reach back into the past for a foreign secretary suggests a prime minister with no clear political strategy. Decision-making at the top may improve but Sunak will probably spend his last year in office increasingly buffeted by events and the destructive forces in his own party. This is a government running on fumes.

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