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Rishi Sunak needs to go for the big push

A delay in the publication of the Sue Gray inquiry report into Partygate has taken the edge off those seeking to challenge Boris Johnson.

January 30, 2022 / 06:40 PM IST
Rishi Sunak with the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others at the meeting of G7 finance ministers and Central bank governors in London on June 5, 2021.
(Photo: U.S. Department of Treasury via Wikimedia Commons)

Rishi Sunak with the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others at the meeting of G7 finance ministers and Central bank governors in London on June 5, 2021. (Photo: U.S. Department of Treasury via Wikimedia Commons)

In his political career, the UK chancellor Rishi Sunak has benefitted much from his unwavering support to Brexit and Boris Johnson. It has taken him far enough to be the occupant of No. 11 Downing Street. But now that he appears to be tantalisingly close to occupying No. 10, he needs to go for the big push.

Sunak has been lukewarm in his support to Boris Johnson ever since Partygate broke. It was speculated that Johnson might play the good cop and veto Sunak’s plan of a tax rise. However, a joint article by Johnson and Sunak in the Sunday Times where they make a case for the tax rise shows Johnson’s determination to stand by his chancellor. Most importantly, it also reflects that Johnson does not anticipate an immediate challenge to his leadership and does not see the need to placate Tory members of Parliament) MPs angry with the rise in the tax.

The joint article may make good optics of a united Cabinet, but over the last few months Johnson and other Tory leadership hopefuls had become wary of Sunak’s rising popularity much before Partygate. A brief note of the circumstances under which Sunak rose up the ladder will be instructive of his transformation from an inexperienced minister to a serious contender for the Tory party leadership.

He was already looked upon as a rising star having entered Parliament in 2015 and later serving as a junior minister under Theresa May. In June 2019, Rishi Sunak along with two other Tory leaders wrote a piece in The Times supporting Boris Johnson’s candidature as the leader of the Conservative Party, when Theresa May announced her plan to resign as prime minister. In July 2019, Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as PM, and suitably rewarded Sunak by making him the chief secretary to the Treasury.

Johnson’s first stint as prime minister was short lived and fresh general elections were to be held in December 2019. Johnson deputed Sunak to high-profile election debates in the BBC and ITV, making him the young, fresh and dynamic face of the Tory party. Boris Johnson secured a majority in the elections and Sunak got back his role as the chief secretary to the Treasury. In February 2020, the then chancellor Sajid Javid resigned from his role after a power struggle. Javid’s resignation came due to the machinations of Dominic Cummings who was Johnson’s close aide in No. 10 and wanted to keep close tabs on the chancellor’s office.

Javid refused to sack his special advisers as demanded by Cummings and Johnson, as it would have meant giving up control of the Treasury to the prime minister’s office, which he was not prepared to do. It was at this point that Sunak was appointed to replace Javid. He was disparagingly termed in the power corridors as ‘chino’ – chancellor in name only. But serving up excel sheets, making measured statements, slick appearances and choreographed media interactions made it difficult to ignore Sunak as an alternative to a boisterous, loose talking Johnson who was increasingly described by critics as non-serious and cavalier. Reports of Johnson’s fling with a businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri when he was the Mayor of London, which continue to appear till now, besmirched his already fragile personal reputation.

The overbearing presence of Carrie Johnson in No. 10 did not endear to several Tory MPs who disliked her calling the shots on several crucial matters. Despite assertions by Johnson that there was no interference by his wife, the circumstances in which Cummings resigned were a fallout of her involvement. Sunak on the other hand was rising in popularity due to the success of the furlough scheme, which protected more than 11 million jobs in the UK. Influential journalist and broadcaster Piers Morgan wrote that Rishi Sunak will replace Boris as the PM sooner rather than later. So concerned was Johnson that reports emerged he deliberately selected tall and bulky MPs to be deputed to the Treasury to work alongside the diminutive Sunak to make him look small in pictures.

But Sunak was not to be hectored. The photo-ops he arranged would be cleverly shot on the stairs of his office amidst positioning which would nullify any premium to those taller than he. With the ministerial red box in his hand, Sunak would be the one to stand out. A fraught relationship between the prime minister and the chancellor is not unusual, but in Sunak and Johnson's case, it is the remarkable turnaround within which a mentee turned into a challenger of sorts that sets them apart.

Now, a delay in the publication of the Sue Gray inquiry report into Partygate has made Tory MPs adopt a wait and watch approach and has also taken the edge off those seeking to challenge Boris Johnson. It has given the beleaguered prime minister some breathing space, and coupled with the developments in Ukraine, enough ammunition for his loyalists to characterise Partygate as unnecessary distraction.

There is no doubt that the Sue Gray report and the Met police’s investigation, once completed, will put Johnson in the dock, but the delay has sapped both the urgency and the potency of the issue. It has also resulted in a blunting of other damning stories relating to No. 10 that have emerged in the last few days, for they do not have the ring of criminality to them like Partygate, although they make for a grim reading.

Quite a few of these stories have been alleged to be the handiwork of Dominic Cummings, who was forced to resign following a power struggle with Carrie Johnson, which led to his fall from grace as Johnson’s close confidante at No. 10. The upside has been that a section of the UK press has now started to splash Johnson’s pictures confabulating with defence officials, and cabinet’s plan to implement the levelling up, which the opposition has described as a stunt to save Boris Johnson’s job.

There is also despair among some political commentators; their frustration borne out of the continued behind the shadow process of setting up a challenge to Johnson. Writing in The Telegraph, Matthew Lynn makes the case for the two main contenders, Sunak and foreign secretary Liz Truss, to spell out their plans instead of ‘shallow soundbites or gimmicks’. Another commentator, Philip Collins, has spoken about the need for Rishi Sunak to resign from office and mount a leadership challenge if he really wants to be the prime minister.

Interestingly, two high profile resignations that have rocked the Johnson government were not due to Partygate. Lord Agnew, a Treasury minister in charge of countering fraud, resigned after it emerged that the government had written off £4.3 billion of Covid loans which went to fraudsters. It was more of an indictment of Sunak than Boris Johnson. The other heavyweight resignation was that of Brexit minister Lord Frost who disagreed with the government’s stand on curbs relating to Covid.

As far as Partygate is concerned, a lone Tory MP dramatically crossed over to Labour, but beyond that there have been only ramblings on the conduct of the prime minister. It is the calm before the political storm, and it remains to be seen whether it will be the publications of reports about Partygate or high-profile resignations that will set alight the inevitable political fireworks in Westminster.

Danish Khan is a London-based independent journalist and author of 'Escaped: True Stories of Indian fugitives in London'. He is researching Indian capitalism at University of Oxford.