This article was published in Cherwell on 23 Nov 2023.
It has been a spectacular fall from grace for the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. After being unceremoniously sacked from her position, her divisive reign as one of the highest-ranking ministers in this country has come to an end. She has had her fair share of controversy, to put it mildly. She gained notoriety for commandeering the UK Government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – a plan which has just been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. She has since compared migrants to a ‘hurricane’, argued that homelessness is a ‘lifestyle choice’, and accused the Metropolitan Police of left-wing bias for allowing a march in support of Palestine to take place on Armistice Weekend.
Many believe these statements to have been part of a meticulously crafted strategy to secure Braverman’s victory in the next Tory leadership election, rather than reflecting her real views. As Owen Jones shrewdly points out, ‘Her demagoguery was always contrived, like she was rattling through a checklist of clichés for any hard-right chancer who aspires to be prime minister.’ With her attacks on the ‘tofu-eating wokerati’, gender pronouns, and even cannabis (which she wanted to upgrade to a class A drug), it is hard to find a culture war box she hasn’t ticked. This has won her infamy even across the Atlantic; CNN characterised her as a ‘Trump tribute act’ and ‘commander-in-chief of Britain’s culture wars’. However, it is hard to believe that these are her sincere views. With her background as a human rights barrister, Braverman must have known that her Rwandan deportation plan would be unlawful; and given that both of her parents were immigrants to the United Kingdom, Braverman’s extreme views on immigration are certainly questionable. It seems as though she simply wants her soundbites and incendiary rhetoric splashed across the headlines, giving her free publicity and shoring her up to become the next leader of the Tory party.
But one must further question why Braverman has chosen to take such extreme, right-wing stances. I suspect it may have something to do with her gender.
It is hardly controversial to argue that women tend to have it harder than men in politics. Data from the United Nations shows that just 15 countries have a woman Head of State and 16 a woman Head of Government, with women making up only 26.5 per cent of parliamentarians. This is due to a variety of factors. For one, despite quotas for credentials and background, accomplished women are less likely than their male counterparts to perceive themselves as qualified to seek office. But more importantly, stereotypes about women and their roles mean that voters and parties are less likely to support female candidates. An influential study in 2003 showed that views about ‘women’s emotionality or competence’ affect voter support, and that party elites’ decisions to support female candidates may be ‘shaped by their perception of voters’ preferences’. This suggests not only that some voters are sexist, but that political parties may choose to de-prioritise women because they fear that voters simply do not like them.
This may be why Braverman has chosen to do what she has done. Women in politics cannot rely on being ‘quietly competent’ – the game both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have been playing. Instead, they must adopt loud, firm and clear stances, all whilst avoiding a perception of ‘softness’. Just look at the previous line-up of female Prime Ministers – Liz Truss, Theresa May, and Margaret Thatcher. Truss was in office for too short a time to be fully discussed, though she certainly did not help to fight the stereotype of women as ‘incompetent’. May was criticised for being ‘profoundly weak’, with many joking that she embodied the opposite of ‘strong and stable’ – her mantra during the 2017 general election campaign. Thatcher was the only female Prime Minister to have been viewed relatively favourably, but only because she supported policies to the right of her party, earning her the title of the ‘Iron Lady’. In the Labour Party too, many notable female politicians have assumed strong, uncompromising positions. Angela Rayner publicly criticised Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader. Rebecca Long-Bailey vowed to back all strikes, ‘no questions asked’, when running for Labour Party leader in 2020. In a notable recent case, Jess Philips publicly resigned from her post as a Shadow Cabinet Minister after voting against the party whip in support of a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine war. It seems that across the political spectrum in the UK, female politicians have adopted stronger stances than most men in their parties. This is unsurprising in a world where women are still underestimated and viewed as weak, and where women in positions of power have to work harder to prove that they deserve a place in the room.
In this context, I wonder whether there may be more structural reasons for Braverman’s right-wing stances. In particular, her identity as a woman of colour may have compounded the problem, making her adopt an even harsher stance on immigration, lest she be labelled as soft. I do not seek to excuse the horrendous things Braverman has said and done – she embodies the very worst of right-wing British politics, having used ugly, divisive rhetoric to further her own agenda. As a Labour supporter, I disagree with every single policy she has proposed. However, I do wonder whether she would have adopted the same stances, or whether she would have been nearly as vilified, were she a man. I can admit that I have felt less upset and less betrayed when Nigel Farage, a man, has made similarly vile comments on immigration. I am therefore unsure whether or not I subconsciously hold double standards for male and female politicians.
All this hypothesising may be wrong. But if it is true that she has adopted a more radical position because she is a woman in politics, I might be able to find just a tiny amount of sympathy for Suella Braverman.