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2 September 2020

Rishi Sunak’s popularity gives him real power. But what happens when the spending stops?

The Chancellor’s allies fear his likeability and influence will fade as the furlough scheme ends.

By Stephen Bush

Like many workplaces in the United Kingdom, Whitehall has been retro-fitted in order to become “Covid-secure”: desks have been replaced and separated, the odd plastic screen has been erected, and one-way systems have been put in place. There is one partial exception: the Treasury, which has not one but three different systems. The finance ministry shares its offices with the Cabinet Office, whose one-way system runs in the opposite direction to that of the Treasury; and HM Revenue and Customs, which doesn’t appear to have a system at all. (One Cabinet Office official has dubbed HMRC “the badlands” as a result.) 

That Rishi Sunak’s writ doesn’t run even to the ends of his department’s offices could serve as an easy metaphor for the limits of his power: it’s hard to imagine that George Osborne or Gordon Brown would have allowed the Treasury’s housemates to go their own way. But the analogy is misleading: the real measure of Sunak’s strength can be found wherever his face adorns a poster for Eat Out to Help Out, the government voucher scheme designed to encourage people back into restaurants and cafés.

His omnipresence attests to two things. The first is his structural and internal power compared to that of his boss. Shortly before Sunak unveiled the voucher scheme, Boris Johnson gave a speech in which he talked of the need for “Rooseveltian” ambition in public spending. The speech, which has since been forgotten, contained little new policy and even less in the way of money, and Sunak was able to make the announcement that defined the summer.

The Chancellor’s ubiquity on promotional posters attests to the other source of his authority: his astonishing popularity. Sunak is, for the moment, the only politician whose face could appear on a billboard without repelling one of either Remainers or Leavers, Conservatives or Labour supporters. Sunak’s standing with voters – he is more popular than Johnson and Keir Starmer – is surely responsible for what remains of the government’s opinion poll lead, when it still has one.

The institutional might of the Treasury, coupled with Sunak’s popularity, makes him both a considerable force inside the government and a source of consolation for worried Conservative MPs (an increasingly large group). Many fear that Downing Street has no philosophical or ideological moorings, and no setting other than perpetual campaign mode, leaving the Conservatives vulnerable to a Labour Party majoring on competence and cool-headedness. “Culture war is an effective tool for the right if the left plays,” one MP despairs, “but when the Labour Party doesn’t – and under Keir Starmer they’ve got too much sense – we just look like frothing idiots.”

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While the public’s approval of Sunak gives solace to Conservatives, it continues to demoralise Labour MPs. Some fear that while Starmer has done a masterful job of prosecuting the case against Johnson, he has yet to do the same to the Conservative Party as a whole. Most Labour MPs assume that Tory MPs, just as they deposed Theresa May to boost their electoral chances against Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, will in turn ditch Johnson and pick the candidate best-placed to defeat Starmer. At the moment that’s Sunak, not least because he and Starmer share so much in the way of underlying appeal: competence, a private decency that comes across well on TV, and good prime ministerial hair. All of this adds to the Chancellor’s power. The unwritten story of the pandemic is that Sunak has won the important battles, including the case for beginning to ease the lockdown.

The situation in his office, then, is not a sign of weakness: there are two good reasons the Treasury continues to be one building with three systems. First, so few civil servants have returned to Great George Street that they can easily work around the overlapping systems. Second, the Chancellor himself is rarely in the building, preferring to work from his Downing Street office. This is a departure from how Sajid Javid and George Osborne ran things, and a return to the approach favoured by Philip Hammond. Civil servants often complain when ministers keep away from their departments, saying that it makes it harder to seek direction quickly. The ministers who are regularly praised for having a grip on their briefs – such as Michael Gove or Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – tend to spend a lot of time in and with their teams.

The Treasury is usually no different, but many think Sunak is in the right place, because, in the words of one official, he needs to “keep an eye on them” – meaning Downing Street. Treasury staff have a sceptical view of No 10. This is not because they are unreconciled Remainers, but because they think that Johnson has never encountered a spending commitment he didn’t like and that there is no one in his set-up who speaks both economics and Johnsonian, as his adviser Gerard Lyons did in City Hall.

It is Sunak who has the job of speaking both tongues now. The painful process of bringing the UK’s debt-to-GDP ratio under control – in May, the ratio rose above 100 per cent for the first time since 1963 – or at least halting the rise in the national debt, must begin, hopefully as soon as the Budget in the autumn. The problem is that Sunak is allowed to do as he pleases because of his high approval rating – the product of an era in which he has spent freely, on everything from paying people’s salaries to giving them a tenner off their dinner. What happens when the spending stops? Will Sunak’s likeability and therefore his influence in No 10 end when the furlough scheme does? His allies fear it will and that, ultimately, his popularity can only head one way from here: down. 

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