It’s hard to believe that Karen Bradley was on the Conservative Party’s A-List – sometimes known as the Priority List – back in 2005. This was the list of candidates drawn up by Conservative Central Office after David Cameron became leader, ‘aimed as a means of broadening the number of Conservative MPs, potential peers and MEPs from minority groups and women as well as other preferred candidates for candidature’.
She was selected for Staffordshire Moorlands in the summer of 2006 and won the seat from Labour in 2010, holding it with increased majorities in 2015 and 2017.
Within three years of election she had been appointed to the government as Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, then a Parliamentary under-secretary and elevated to the Cabinet as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport in July 2016. That, by anyone’s standards, is a pretty fast-track rise to the top table. So, where did it all go wrong?
A few weeks after she entered the Commons David Cameron, then prime minister, said this: “For someone of my generation, Bloody Sunday and the early 1970s are something we feel we have learnt about rather than lived through. But what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
I would be genuinely surprised if Karen Bradley was not in the Commons on the day that Cameron made that statement. I would be astonished that someone who, now as NI secretary of state, is regularly briefed on legacy issues, was not aware of what was said. That’s why she did so much damage with her comment about security forces “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.
Personally, I can’t understand how anyone can be shot dead in a ‘dignified’ way. It was a stupid and grossly offensive thing to say. The fact that she was forced to ‘clarify’ her comments a few hours later only added to her problems, because she didn’t actually apologise; something that only happened the following morning.
Her bigger problem, of course, is that she has made a rod for her own back. The “dignified and appropriate way” line will follow her everywhere she goes. I’m no supporter of Karen Bradley – I’ve argued many times that she is completely out of her depth when it comes to the nuances and history of local politics here – but I do believe that what she said, while clumsy, stupid, inaccurate and offensive, does not represent her true feelings.
Her entire time as secretary of state has consisted of one gaffe after another (is there no-one in the Northern Ireland Office who can keep her on the right path, I wonder); yet I cannot bring myself to believe, as some seem to do, that her mask slipped, resulting in an accidental unveiling of her true position. Unfortunately for her, huge damage has been done: “dignified and appropriate” will be deployed time and time again by those with their own very particular narrative and agenda.
Her other difficulty is that even unionists were uncomfortable with the language she used. Jeffrey Donaldson described it as clumsy and suggested that in her role as secretary of state, she was in “last chance saloon”. The UUP’s Doug Beattie said her remarks were “completely wrong”. Sammy Wilson, while calling on republicans to stop “hiding behind their PIRA code,” also added that soldiers and police officers who served in the Troubles “must not be above the law”.
Bradley will, I suspect, hang on to her job; not because she deserves to (even before her comments in the Commons she was generally regarded as ineffective and out of touch), but because Theresa May has no one to put in her place. I can’t imagine that Bradley would suddenly shift her position on Brexit and vote against the prime minister’s deal if May sacked her; but I’m pretty sure that May isn’t prepared to take the risk.
Also, the Prime Minister doesn’t have much under-used political talent across her backbenches at the moment – she’s already struggling to sustain a Cabinet which combines loyalty to her policy and ability to do a top-level job – so it’s not as if there’s someone ready to step into Bradley’s shoes. Let’s be honest, she only got the job herself when James Brokenshire became ill and May couldn’t find anyone else to take over (although, according to a number of sources at the time, she did sound out other candidates).
I’ve mentioned before that May’s reliance on the DUP means that any secretary of state comes, in pecking order, below, way, way below Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson. Put bluntly, if the DUP doesn’t want Bradley messing about in NI affairs, then Bradley won’t be messing about.
But she knew that when she took the job. She won’t be putting pressure on the DUP. She won’t be encouraging the other parties, civic society and community organisations to make progress on restoring political/institutional stability. Which, as it happens, suits both the DUP and Sinn Fein quite nicely, because a toxic relationship and ongoing polarisation is electorally advantageous for them at the moment.
So it looks like Bradley will hang on: with a title, a chauffeur-driven car, plush offices, Hillsborough Castle accommodation when she needs it and the chance to call the prime minister a close friend. But she has no political authority and very little respect from local parties or the general public. It’s unlikely that she could even convene, let alone chair a new round of talks. She is damaged goods. So damaged, in fact, that she serves no purpose here. I feel sorry for her.