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London: Cutting a somewhat insignificant looking figure on a late-night television show when Boris Johnson was about to resign as prime minister three months ago, Suella Braverman announced to a bemused television panel that she would stand in the contest to succeed him. She was the first candidate publicly to state her intentions, but neither Robert Peston, the ITV interviewer, nor subsequent media reports seemed to take the then little-known attorney general very seriously.
Born to Kenyan Indian and Mauritian parents who moved to Britain in the 1960s, Braverman has, however, proved to be ambitious, ruthlessly controversial and outspoken. That has led to her playing a seemingly leading role in slowing progress on the current India-UK free trade deal (FTA) negotiations by opposing the sort of economic migration that her parents enjoyed.
Though quickly eliminated from the leadership contest that eventually produced Liz Truss as a crisis-prone prime minister, Braverman strengthened her post-Brexit popularity within the anti-immigration and anti-woke right wing of the party during the campaign. That led to her being made home secretary, one of the four top posts in the cabinet, at the age of 42 – even though she lacked the experience of most predecessors.
Along with Priti Patel, who she followed as home secretary, Braverman is far to the right of other top politicians of South Asian descent, notably Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid.
Her stance horrifies many others from the subcontinent because she is denying would-be new immigrants the success that she is able to enjoy as a result of the opportunities given to her parents when they were economic migrants. She has said she is proud of what her parents achieved – her mother became an NHS nurse and local councillor in north London, and her father worked for a housing association.
Along with Patel, Braverman’s motives are widely thought to stem as much from political ambition as ideology. Both pander to the Conservative Party’s 80,000 largely right-wing members who elect the leader. They want to show they are “whiter than the whitest of Cheltenham colonels,” I was told, controversially but maybe aptly, by a friend of Indian origin.
Last week during the Conservative Party’s chaotic party conference, Braverman horrified government insiders by opposing more open immigration during a Spectator magazine interview for Indian students, key workers and others being included in the trade agreement that Truss and Narendra Modi had been aiming to sign by Diwali. That festival is celebrated at the end of next week and the target now has slipped to later in the year, unless some sort of interim deal is concocted.
Braverman also infuriated British universities with complaints about students’ extended families and said she wanted to drive down immigration, even though Truss’s economic growth needs immigrants to help fill over one million job vacancies.
Other cabinet ministers cashed in on the conference’s free-for-all and rebelled against Truss, who had been weakened a few days earlier by a disastrous mini-Budget and a financial crisis, but Braverman was perhaps the most disruptive. She has gone quiet publicly since then and last weekend joined a chorus of party leaders appealing for unity behind Truss.
In The Spectator interview, she said she had “concerns about having an open borders migration policy with India” because she didn’t “think that’s what people voted for with Brexit”.
In the context of the trade agreement, she said there could be flexibility for students and entrepreneurs, though she had reservations. “Look at migration in this country – the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants. We even reached an agreement with the Indian government last year to encourage and facilitate better cooperation in this regard.”
The remark about India not abiding by the agreement to take back over-stayers is in line with Home Office grumbles over several years. It brought a predictable response from the Indian government that said it was committed to facilitating the returnees and awaited “demonstrable progress” from the UK.
Braverman talked about immigration in other interviews and has complained about the number of dependents who accompanies students – “family members who can piggyback onto their student visa.”
Lord Joe Johnson, who was universities minister in his elder brother Boris Johnson’s government, said her ideas on foreign students “bode ill for her period as Home Secretary if this is going to be her approach to, frankly, one of the most promising export industries that the UK has”. Without international students, the government could “kiss goodbye” to its ambition for Britain to become “a science superpower”.
The reverberations from the interview continued and led to a story in the UK’s Times newspaper on October 12 headlined “Indian trade deal in peril after Suella Braverman migrant comments”. This quoted anonymous sources from India saying the “relationship has taken a step back” while a British source alleged Indian officials were “apoplectic”.
In parallel, India’s Economic Times ran a headline that the deal was “stuck over access to skilled workers”. It said India had hardened its position demanding easier immigration into the UK amid the concerns raised by Braverman. A Delhi trade department spokesman was quoted saying India would not “sacrifice quality for speed”.
There are many other issues as yet unresolved in the trade negotiations where subjects range from access in India for Scottish whisky and British cars. A stumbling block is the UK wanting effective protection such as international arbitration for UK investments and freedom to store business data overseas, both of which India resists.
But apoplectic or not, relations between the countries seem as cordial as ever, at least at top levels.
India’s new high commissioner in London Vikram Doraiswami arrived three weeks ago and has been extremely active with a country-wide tour. Those he has met include King Charles, at a reception in Scotland, Liz Truss in a Downing Street reception, plus regional leaders and Keir Starmer, who heads the Labour Party.
Ultimately, the trade agreement prospects could rest on whether Truss has enough prime ministerial authority to overrule her home secretary in the interests of a deal that would be good for the British economy. Usually, a prime minister would be able to do that – but these are not usual times. Truss’s future is in doubt, and it might just be easier to let issues slide for now.
Braverman may however not have won the admirers and supporters she desires in the past week with her outbursts and could have even reduced her chances of stepping into No 10 Downing Street if Truss loses the job before the next general election in 2024.
John Elliott is a journalist.