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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]

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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?]