London: Britain’s finance minister has charmed the public with his easy manner and empathy since the pandemic plunged the country into crisis in March. Over coffee and croissants in his rooms at No. 11 Downing Street, Rishi Sunak is now winning over his party—and a growing number of his colleagues want him to move next door to take over as prime minister.
That the governing Conservatives are even contemplating their next leader is an extraordinary demonstration of how Boris Johnson’s fortunes have tumbled. It’s barely 10 months since he steered them to their biggest parliamentary majority since the 1980s and this week’s party conference ordinarily would have been a time for back-slapping.
Sliding in the polls, with a coronavirus strategy in disarray, Johnson has presided over the highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession in more than a century. He muddled his own pandemic rules and the Covid testing system he promised would be “world beating” failed to count 16,000 new positive cases. Talks on a trade deal with the European Union are deadlocked.
The party is now losing patience. Members of Parliament sense that he can be pushed around. A succession of threatened rebellions in the House of Commons have shown that his majority of 80 now counts for little.
Johnson’s team are taking care to avoid pushing MPs to vote—for fear, as one of his supporters said, of destroying the illusion that he retains authority. “There is no discipline,” the person said. “It’s out of control.”
A senior government official said relations between Johnson and his Tories are better than they were earlier in the pandemic and dismissed the notion of a breakdown in party discipline as “rubbish.” The person also pointed out the prime minister had won a recent parliamentary vote on a controversial bill linked to Brexit.
As the chancellor of the exchequer, Sunak also isn’t unscathed. He’s been forced to defend his summer subsidy program for diners to support the hospitality industry after suggestions it helped spread infections. His commitment to keeping businesses open also looks riskier heading into winter, when the virus is likely to get more dangerous. Then there’s the question of how to fix the U.K.’s finances.
But Sunak offers what many of his colleagues regard as a true blue brand of Toryism: a coherent vision of a small-state government that helps people to help themselves.
Last month, Sunak followed up on his warnings from March that he could not “save every job” in the aftermath of the first lockdown, which shuttered vast swathes of the economy. He confirmed he would be winding up the government’s 50 billion-pound ($65 billion) wage support programs and replacing them with a far less generous policy that economists said would unleash a wave of job losses in the months ahead.
To those who work with him, the 40-year-old Sunak looks like a prime minister—and is doing a good job of preparing the ground for a potential campaign for the top job. Key to this, as Johnson knew when he was running for the leadership, is meeting the MPs who will eventually vote for the next leader.
Sunak has taken to entertaining small groups of Conservative MPs—around seven or 10 at a time—for breakfasts in his rooms next door to Johnson’s headquarters at No. 10 Downing Street. Over coffee, pastries, and fruit, the chancellor asks them about their local constituencies, is briefed well on much of the detail, and candid about the errors the government has been making.
“He walks the walk of a prime minister,” said one Tory who had been to a breakfast gathering. “People look at him and he’s smart, he’s pleasant, he’s polite. What’s not to like?” Another said the discussions showed Sunak to be “very engaging, brilliant, totally across the detail and very relaxed.”
Sunak was doing the usual outreach to colleagues that any chancellor would ahead of a planned spending review, according to one of his allies. Yet he’s charming a vital group. It’s Tory MPs who will decide the timing of the next leadership election and pick the final two candidates who will run off against each other in a national party ballot.
Sunak paid attention to the group of Tories who were newly elected to parliament in 2019, some of whom have complained of being ignored by Johnson. His slick personal branding is also higher profile than any other cabinet minister bar Johnson. A signed photo of himself accompanies his key policy messages on Twitter. His methods have also been tailored to suit parliamentary colleagues.
“I keep getting Rishi branded emails with a big picture of him called ‘News from Number 11,’” one MP said. “No one else does this. We don’t get emails with ‘News from Number 10.’”
Nor do many Tories detect the old Johnson vim on display much these days. Gone is his boosterism and joviality, he says, because such an approach would be inappropriate in the grave circumstances the country is facing.
Some Conservatives who are looking for a reason why Johnson has lost his zest for the job privately comment that his health is still a worry. He contracted coronavirus in March and spent several nights in intensive care, before taking a month off to recover.
Johnson, 56, insists he is as “fit as a butcher’s dog” and on Tuesday said it’s “self-evident drivel” to say Covid had robbed him of his mojo. But one loyal minister said people underestimate what Johnson has been through.
“He was close to death just a few months ago,” the minister said. “When people ask where is the real Boris, well the real Boris was the man who referenced the mayor in ‘Jaws’ saying we’ve got to keep the beaches open. Events have changed him.”
Yet it’s more than just the image of a competent and composed leader where Sunak’s colleagues prefer him to Johnson. There is the substance of his politics, too. Johnson’s skeptics fear he is in thrall to a small number of advisers and is slavishly following the instructions of scientists and medics who are urging ever more punishing restrictions on businesses and citizens.
More than 100 Tories were said to be ready to vote against Johnson last week in protest at what they saw as his rule by decree—imposing new laws on the country to combat Covid-19 without putting them to Parliament for a vote first.
By contrast, Sunak in recent weeks has freely declared himself frustrated with the restrictions, such as the new 10 p.m. curfew for pubs, and told Parliament that the country must learn to “live without fear.” It was a line that went down well with Tories who fear that the economic damage will blight the country long after the virus fades.
While Johnson gave his party cause to doubt his Tory credentials, Sunak proudly declared in his conference speech on Monday that Conservatives have “a sacred responsibility to future generations to leave the public finances strong.”
According to one person familiar with the matter, Johnson’s team have noticed how tensions have grown with Sunak in recent months. While the chancellor is arguing fiercely against any short, sharp “circuit breaker” national lockdown, Johnson’s public comments are more cautious.
The prime minister appointed Sunak to mend ties at the top of the leadership after falling out with his previous chancellor, Sajid Javid, and Sunak spent Monday and Tuesday reiterating the bond he has with Johnson. At a party conference event, he said the two men are “personally close” and that he “definitely” did not want the top job.
But the divisions are only likely to deepen as winter approaches. The public has been warned of six months of potentially tightening restrictions ahead. That will coincide with the scheduled end of Sunak’s wage support program. The surge in unemployment that’s likely to follow will be a sore test of his—and Johnson’s—popularity.
On Monday, Sunak even suggested some of the election pledges that Johnson campaigned on may become casualties of the crisis, with more expensive policies likely to be cut. That may yet give his Conservative fans pause for thought.
But as Sunak put it in his conference speech, balancing the books is a mission that goes to the heart of his vision for the party: “If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us?”- Bloomberg