New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
9 August 2021

What a joke between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak tells us about government policy

The autumn will undoubtedly see more rows over the policy consequences of Sunak's very austere budget.

By Stephen Bush

The ongoing differences between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have spilled further out into the open after the Sunday Times revealed that Johnson joked about moving him from the Treasury and to the Health Department.

No-one is denying that the Prime Minister made the gag: but some are seeking to downplay it. Inevitably, it has triggered a back-and-forth between allies of both men elsewhere in the government and on the backbenches.

In many ways, it’s the usual Downing Street vs Treasury story: the Prime Minister wants to spend money and the Chancellor wants to stop them. But it is more fraught, in part because Sunak holds and represents a distinct set of Conservative ideals and philosophies, of which austere budget rounds are just one – ideals and philosophies which Johnson does not hold. For some of his supporters, that’s part of Sunak’s appeal. But it’s also why his position often feels fragile, because so many of his parliamentary allies support him because he is a winner, not because they have any particular attachment to a set of principles or governing ideals.

Added to that, Sunak appears to be more worried about the government’s coronavirus debts and believes there is an electoral cost to a Conservative Party that isn’t seen to be austere. There are other plausible candidates for the role of Chancellor in the Conservative party who are of the view that the debts accrued during the pandemic are no big deal, and others still who believe that the 2017 election shows that the electoral dividends of austerity have long since stopped paying out.

[See also: The Tory crime strategy is either lock them up or lock them down − and neither one is working]

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Of course, that doesn’t matter: it’s far from clear that Johnson could survive moving his second Chancellor politically and he was, in any case, joking. The joke is revealing as jokes in tense relationships so often are, but it was a joke.

The problem for both men, and indeed for all of us, is that the joke may get serious sooner rather than later. The autumn will see more rows over the policy consequences of Sunak’s very austere budget, putting further strain between N0 10 and No 11 Downing Street. And most importantly of all, the challenge of reaching net zero as quickly as possible is also one where Sunak’s instincts are in a different place to the Prime Minister’s. Relations between Johnson and Sunak may well be the one thing that you can safely say won’t be 1.5 degrees warmer by 2030.

[See also: What is the biggest problem with Boris Johnson’s efforts to meet net zero?]

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change