Rishi Sunak’s political naivety

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

Before the war in Ukraine, ministers and Tory MPs believed a fixedpenalty notice for the Prime Minister would mean the end of Boris Johnson. It would result in enough no-confidence letters from Tory MPs to triggera leadership contest which would run into the summer. There would be a newPrime Minister in time for the party conference in the autumn.

But now the Prime Minister has been told he will be fined byScotland Yard for attending parties during lockdown, no one is quite so sure.The reason? The circumstances around Johnson are changing.

Until now, stories about lockdown parties in No. 10 had beenovershadowed by the Ukrainian crisis. Johnson has also impressed MPs and theparty membership with his response. And most importantly, the man tipped to succeedhim – his Downing Street neighbour Rishi Sunak – is fighting for his politicalsurvival. In a move that has taken many Tory MPs by surprise, the Chancellor,too, is to receive a fine – for being present when Johnson received a birthdaycake in Downing Street during lockdown. ‘We’re at the omnishambles point of thecrisis,’ says one Tory MP.

Even before this, MPs were having doubts about Sunak. As thecost-of-living crisis worsens, the Chancellor has been criticised for hiswife’s non-dom tax status. His popularity has plummeted in the polls. ‘Rishiwas the obvious person to take over if things went wrong and now he has had hiswings clipped,’ says one senior Tory. If there is no obvious successor toJohnson, a leadership contest starts to lose its appeal. Cabinet ministersstill popular with the membership include Foreign Secretary Liz Truss andDefence Secretary Ben Wallace but there are doubts any candidate is ready totake over now. ‘We’ve gone into aworld of deep murkiness now Rishi is wounded – it’s what gives Boris theopportunity to survive,’ says a senior conservative MP.

When Sunak was appointed in February 2020, many predicted he wouldbe a ‘chancellor in name only’ and succumb to Johnson’s spending whims. Thisproved misguided. Sunak quickly built his own power base. He frequently putshis foot down to Johnson, which has led to tension. The Prime Minister – whoprefers to be surrounded by ‘tired old lions’ who pose little threat – at onepoint even discussed demoting Sunak to health secretary.

At the peak of partygate, many MPs wondered if Sunak would resignand deal the killer blow to the Prime Minister. He didn’t. Now the Chancellorhas lost the moral high ground. His fate is in Johnson’s hands. New revelationsover Sunak’s use of a green card while in No. 11 have led to questions abouthow committed he is to the UK. ‘Why would you stay as an American resident? Itsuggests an otherness,’ says a member of government.

In the face of a public backlash over her non-dom status, Sunak’swife Akshata Murthy has agreed to pay UK tax on her overseas earnings, and theChancellor has referred himself to Johnson’s ethics adviser Lord Geidt over hisfinancial affairs. While Sunak’s team are confident the investigation willconfirm no wrongdoing, for some MPs the call for an inquiry which could prolongthe saga just confirms their biggest concern: Sunak is not very good atpolitics.

‘He is trying to prove he broke no rules, but what Rishi doesn’tunderstand is that the rules he broke were political ones,’ says a partyfigure. ‘If there is a leadership election this year, he will find itexceptionally difficult to run,’ says a former minister. Sunak could still makelife difficult for his neighbour – if he chooses to resign in light of thefine, it would set an unhelpful precedent for the Prime Minister. Johnson’steam have insisted he will stay in post regardless of a fixed penalty notice. ‘If Rishi quits, he would make thesituation much worse for Boris,’ says one senior party figure.

Either way, Sunak’s political honeymoon was over before the finewas issued. MPs worry that he is not prepared for the scrutiny that comes withfrontline politics and gets irritated too easily. ‘He’s not been treated like anormal politician over the past two years. He’s now finding out how the otherministers have it,’ says a government adviser. Sunak’s supporters had to denyrumours that he is considering resigning in light of stories about his wife’stax affairs.

There are forces in the party who are quite happy to see Sunakknocked down a peg or two. Allies of the Chancellor have been quick to blameDowning Street for a co-ordinated attack to weaken him. While there’s no proofof this, the accusation shows the level of suspicion between the two sides. Therecent appointment of the Sunak ally and former Treasury minister Steve Barclayas No. 10’s chief of staff has helped to repair ties, but only up to apoint.

There are still plenty of Boris loyalists who regard theChancellor as a threat. ‘Just look how long it took him to back the boss withparties,’ says one ally of Johnson. One cabinet minister complains that theTreasury can be too controlling: ‘Rishi needs to learn to consult others withhis views – he may be clever, but he doesn’t know everything.’ There are alsobackbenchers who resent Sunak’s rapid rise to the top and blame him for thenational insurance hike.

Unsurprisingly, Labour spies an opportunity. ‘Rishi and Boris aremore dysfunctional than Blair and Brown,’ claims one member of Keir Starmer’steam. ‘They at least had the same vision.’ In light of the fines, the Labourleader has called on them both to resign.

Despite the return of partygate, both parties agree that cost ofliving is now the biggest issue for voters. Starmer plans to lead on it. Labouraides say that in internal focus groups people are crying because they can’tpay their energy bills. In the eyes of the public, the blame could fall uponSunak as much as Johnson.

If they both stay in post, could Johnson choose to move Sunak toanother position? It’s a question ministers are asking. There are rumours of areshuffle in the summer. It’s no great secret that the Prime Minister isfrustrated with his Home Secretary Priti Patel and the slow progress on theissue of small boat crossings. ‘If he has a sense of humour, he’ll move Rishito the Home Office,’ says a minister. The department has a reputation as agraveyard for ambitious politicians.

Given that the cost-of-living crisis is going to get worse, timeaway from the Treasury might not be such a bad thing for Sunak. Yet it would berisky for Johnson to lose his second chancellor in under three years. Not onlycould such a senior departure spook the markets at a time when the economy isin a fragile state, but to the fiscal conservatives still left in the Toryparty, Sunak has come to represent responsible spending. Until recently he wasregarded as an electoral asset – in the 2019 general election, when he waschief secretary to the Treasury and a relative unknown, he was sent out to speakfor the government in some of the televised debates.

Labour believes its route to power will be by winning public truston the economy. This has meant there has been a concerted effort to land attacklines on Sunak rather than just focus on Johnson. The announcement that theChancellor will receive a fixed penalty notice is a gift for Labour. ButSunak’s weakened position over the past month means that the Prime Minister issafer than he would have been otherwise. No matter how bad things are, there isno consensus on who ought to replace him.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments