Fresh questions were tonight being asked about Rishi Sunak’s decision to bring Suella Braverman back into government as home secretary, after a former Conservative party chair claimed she had been involved in “multiple” breaches of the ministerial code.
Jake Berry, who was chair when Liz Truss sacked Ms Braverman last week, said that she was responsible for a “really serious breach” relating to confidential government discussions of cybersecurity.
And he challenged Mr Sunak’s claim that the home secretary had confessed to breaking the code, telling Talk TV that “the evidence was put to her and she accepted the evidence, rather than the other way around”.
Mr Berry’s shock intervention adds to pressure on the new PM, who is already facing accusations of failing to deliver on his promise of “integrity” in government by granting Ms Braverman “impunity” for her misdemeanour.
And it suggests that Mr Sunak may face efforts to destabilise his new regime by members of the Truss administration, like Mr Berry, who he sacked after coming to power this week.
Ms Braverman was reappointed home secretary on Tuesday just six days after Liz Truss sacked her for sending cabinet papers to unauthorised people via her private email – and just hours after Sunak promised that his administration would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the prime minister of doing a “grubby deal” with the leading right-winger in return for her support in the Conservative leadership contest, which effectively scuppered Boris Johnson’s hopes of a sensational comeback.
Concern over Ms Braverman’s return is understood to have been raised by the head of the civil service, Simon Case, who initially advised Ms Truss that her actions amounted to a breach of the code.
Neither Mr Sunak nor Downing Street denied that Mr Case had advised against the appointment, though the PM’s official spokesperson said he “did not recognise” reports that the cabinet secretary was “livid” at being overruled.
Announcing her resignation last week, Ms Braverman admitted she made a “mistake”, which she described as a “technical infringement” of the ministerial rules.
But questions remain about why she sent the document to fellow right-wing MP Sir John Hayes and how she accidentally copied in an aide to another MP, who sounded the alarm.
Mr Berry told Talk TV: “From my own knowledge, there were multiple breaches of the ministerial code.
“It was sent from a private email address to another member of parliament. She then sought to copy in that individual’s wife and accidentally sent it to a staffer in parliament.
“To me that seems a really serious breach, especially when it was documents relating to cybersecurity, as I believe. The cabinet secretary had his say at the time. I doubt he’s changed his mind in the last six days, but that’s that’s a matter for the new prime minister.”
Asked if Ms Braverman had “put her hands up” to the breach, Mr Berry replied: “I wasn’t in that meeting, but as I understand it, the evidence was put to her and she accepted the evidence, rather than the other way around.” The FDA union, representing top Whitehall mandarins, said any civil servant would expect to face “the harshest of penalties” for such a breach of security, including losing their security clearance.
“Standards matter, and the clear signal from her appointment is that ministers can act with impunity if it suits the prime minister,” said the union’s general secretary Dave Penman.
“This sends the country and the civil service a worrying message about how the new government will approach standards and national security.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street signalled that Mr Sunak had ditched a Truss plan to allow overall immigration to rise in the hope of stimulating economic growth by filling vacancies in shortage occupations.
A spokesperson said the new PM will stick to the pledge in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto that overall numbers will come down over the course of the parliament.
The change – which will make it more difficult for chancellor Jeremy Hunt to convince the Office for Budget Responsibility he can fill a £40bn hole in the national finances – sparked speculation that it was part of a deal with Ms Braverman in return for her support in the leadership contest.
Ms Braverman had clashed with Ms Truss over migration, after declaring a personal ambition to get net numbers down below 100,000 a year, in contradiction to the then PM’s plans.
But Mr Sunak’s press secretary denied the pair discussed the home secretary’s job when they spoke ahead of Ms Braverman’s dramatic declaration in his favour on Sunday, insisting the issue had only come up when he was allocating cabinet roles on Tuesday.
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Sir Keir told MPs: “We can all see what’s happened here – he’s so weak, he’s done a grubby deal trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election.
James Cleverly defends Rishi Sunak’s appointment of Suella Braverman
“There’s a new Tory at the top, but as always with them, party first, country second.”
And the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford accused Mr Sunak of doing a “sleazy backroom deal” with Ms Braverman to help “shore up” right-wing support in his battle with Boris Johnson.
Mr Sunak retorted that he was “delighted” to have Ms Braverman in his cabinet.
“The home secretary made an error of judgement but she recognised that,” the new prime minister told the Commons. “She raised the matter and she accepted her mistake.”
Ms Braverman was later accused of “running away” from scrutiny after she left the Commons chamber rather than respond to an urgent question from Labour about the leak.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has written to Mr Case demanding an investigation “into the extent of this and other possible security breaches”.
And she told MPs that Ms Braverman had “breached core professional standards and has now run away from accountability in this house”.
But Home Office minister Jeremy Quin, who stood in to answer the question on the home secretary’s behalf, insisted it would not be “proper” for Mr Sunak to order an investigation into actions which took place under Ms Truss.
Mr Quin told MPs that it was the PM’s intention to appoint a new independent ethics adviser, after two resigned under Mr Johnson.
But asked whether they would then investigate Ms Braverman, he replied: “Events in the last administration would not properly be part of the remit of a new independent adviser.
“That was a matter that was dealt with by the previous administration. We have a new administration and the home secretary has been appointed to her post.”
Even in the absence of an ethics adviser, it is within Mr Sunak’s power to instruct the government’s ethics and propriety team to look into alleged misbehaviour by a minister. However, the Cabinet Office confirmed that no such request has been made.
The general secretary of the PCS union, which represents many Home Office staff, said: “It beggars belief that a minister who lost her job just days ago for breaching ministerial rules can be welcomed back into government as if nothing happened.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey branded Ms Braverman “leaky Sue” and said her return to a highly sensitive post after such a breach was “inexcusable”.
“She’s responsible for MI5, she sits on the National Security Council, she sees some of the most highly confidential issues, both relating to crime and to our defence,” Sir Ed told the News Agents podcast.
“For her to apparently be so light and easy with copying to people who don’t have that level of clearance, I think is genuinely shocking.”