Picture credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The fast and the spurious

Suella rushes, Rishi fusses

For Rishi Sunak, the weekend had been a brutal introduction to the realities of life in Number 10. There you are, strutting your stuff on the global stage with the other big boys, talking about F-16s and China and semiconductors, feeling like you’re someone who really matters, and all the bloody travelling press want to ask you about is some domestic story about your Home Secretary and a speeding fine.

“Did you have any questions about the summit?” Sunak asked the BBC on Sunday, managing to look amused and slightly condescending towards the little people back down there at the foot of Mount Olympus, with their piddling concerns. “Great.”

Every prime minister goes through it, except Liz Truss, whose crisis-laden hours in office didn’t give political reporters a chance to become obsessed with any stories that weren’t indisputably front page material. Leaders who last any time in the job get used to standing next to the US president and taking questions about when they last ate a Cornish pasty.

On Monday, someone managed to run Suella Braverman herself to ground to ask her if she’d tried to get her officials to secure her a private telling off after she got caught speeding. Plenty of people have done worse things. Some of her fellow ministers have done worse things. Arguably she has done worse things. Which probably explains why she’s decided to hope the story goes away. 

“Last summer, I was speeding,” she told broadcasters. “I regret that, I paid the fine and I took the points.” 

She was up in the House of Commons a couple of hours later for Home Office Questions. “Last summer I was speeding, I regret that,” she told Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck. “I paid the fine and I took the penalty. At no time did I seek to evade sanction.”

Labour frontbencher Sarah Jones tried again. “Hopefully we’re not going to be too repetitive today,” Braverman began, although it was clear she was personally determined to be. “Last summer I was speeding, I regret that. I paid the fine and I accepted the points, and at no point did I seek to evade the sanction.”

At one level, it was magnificent stonewalling. But there’s a skill to brushing these things aside, and Braverman doesn’t have it. Boris Johnson was a past master at issuing things that sounded like denials but weren’t. Braverman, who clearly fancies herself as a future Tory leader, is more in the Theresa May mould of repeating the line and hoping everyone else gives up. 

There was a good turnout of reasonably supportive Conservative MPs in the chamber. Home Office ministers had spaced themselves out along the front bench and, as the questions session went on, seemed to be edging further away from her. Security minister Tom Tugendhat was halfway to the door, but then as a former soldier he knows that any tight grouping represents a target for enemy fire. 

Labour’s Yvette Cooper had a crack at asking the question, throwing one in for good measure about why the Home Secretary’s special adviser had told the Mirror that she hadn’t had a speeding ticket. Braverman turned to her deputy, Robert Jenrick, apparently hoping he would give an answer. Instead, he gestured back at her and she rose once again. “As I said earlier, in the summer of last year I was speeding. I regret that. I paid the fine and I accepted the point. At no time did I seek to avoid the sanction.”

Shortly afterwards, Sunak came into the chamber to give a statement on his travels. He and Braverman seem to agree on one thing, which is that the other one isn’t up to the job. Even on the crowded front bench, there was a gap between them and they faced awkwardly apart, like divorced parents brought together by a school event. Braverman left as soon as she decently could, even though she was due to give a statement herself when he’d finished. 

For his part, the prime minister gave a less than full-throated endorsement of his Home Secretary. “Since I returned from the G7 I have been receiving information on the issues raised,” he said, in reply to a question from Labour’s Andrew Western. “I have met with both the independent adviser and the home secretary. I’ve asked for further information and I’ll update on the appropriate course of action in due course.” That’s enough to keep the story going for another day, which may possibly be what Sunak wants. 

He, in any case, had his mind on higher things. “On the world stage,” he said, “Britain is forging ahead – confident, proud, and free.” Like a Home Secretary with a clear motorway in front of her. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover