Rishi Sunak on back foot in clash with opposition MPs over choice of home secretary

Prime minister's decision was ripped apart by Labour

Sir Keir Starmer addresses Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons. AFP
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There were roars and cheers from Conservative MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday as Rishi Sunak took to his feet to face a grilling one day after being sworn in as Britain’s new prime minister.

But the jovial atmosphere, with laughing and joking, soon gave way to more serious conversations as Mr Sunak was repeatedly forced to defend his choice of home secretary. Suella Braverman was handed the promotion on Tuesday, a week after Liz Truss sacked her for breaching the ministerial code.

In his first clash with the new Tory leader, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer did not hold back on criticism of Mr Sunak’s move.

“He’s so weak, he’s done a grubby deal trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election,” Sir Keir told the House.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats raised “national security” concerns about Ms Braverman’s promotion and demanded a Cabinet Office investigation into the matter.

The words and tone of opposition MPs forced Mr Sunak to go on the defence, as he desperately tried to justify his choice of the person responsible for national security, policing and immigration policies.

The prime minister appointed Suella Braverman as home secretary a week after she was sacked for breaching the ministerial code. Bloomberg

Mr Sunak said Ms Braverman had “made an error of judgment” and accepted responsibility for it.

“That is why I was delighted to welcome her back into a united Cabinet that brings experience and stability to the heart of government,” he said.

The prime minister said Sir Keir had been soft on crime, an accusation which saw him use his previous role as head of the Crown Prosecution Service in defence.

He simultaneously managed to fit in another dig at Ms Braverman when he declared: “I ran the Crown Prosecution Service for five years … and I know first-hand how important it is that we have a home secretary whose integrity and professionalism are beyond question.”

As barbs were exchanged, Ms Braverman appeared to be at least slightly uncomfortable about being the topic of conversation as she sat awkwardly on the Tory front bench.

Sir Keir was keen to remind the prime minister that he had lost to Ms Truss in the Conservative leadership contest in the summer, and was in No 10 only because she had been “beaten by a lettuce”. His words were in reference to a Daily Star live stream, in which a head of lettuce outlasted Ms Truss’s 49-day premiership.

Asked if the job could have been dangled in front of Ms Braverman in return for her public support of Mr Sunak in the contest, his representative said: “I’m not going to get into private discussions that happened. As far as I’m aware, the first time that they discussed it was yesterday when he offered her the job.”

Mr Sunak's first performance at the despatch box as prime minister was ripped apart by opposition MPs.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, tweeted: “New prime minister, same grubby Tories.

“Rishi Sunak promised ‘integrity’ but his first act was to make backroom deals to reinstate a home secretary a week after she was sacked for a security breach. We need a general election now."

Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said with Mr Sunak at the helm of the party rather than Ms Truss, it “seems like the same old Tories to me”.

Updated: October 26, 2022, 4:41 PM