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12 August 2021

Why Boris Johnson knows he can’t demote Rishi Sunak

Careless talk of demoting the Chancellor to health secretary is nonsense – but the outburst reveals a Prime Minister in trouble.

By David Gauke

Reshuffles often contain a surprise or two but there is one prediction that can be made with great confidence. Rishi Sunak will not be demoted to health secretary.

It was reported in the Sunday Times that Boris Johnson had suggested “maybe it’s time we looked at Rishi as the next secretary of state for health”. The Prime Minister was apparently irritated that a letter to him from the Chancellor calling for a change of approach to travel restrictions had been leaked to a newspaper.

The reason why one can be confident that this proposed appointment will not come to pass is that it is very difficult to believe Sunak would accept such a move. There are only two cabinet positions to which a chancellor can move directly – foreign secretary (as Geoffrey Howe did and George Osborne would have done had the referendum result gone differently) or prime minister (John Major and Gordon Brown). Even a wounded chancellor, such as Norman Lamont, could not accept a demotion to a middle ranking cabinet position.

Rishi Sunak is not a wounded chancellor. He was on the wrong side of the lockdown argument last autumn but he is highly regarded by his parliamentary colleagues and popular with Conservative Party members and the public generally. In the event of a sudden vacancy in No 10, Sunak would be the overwhelming favourite to succeed. To accept a demotion to health secretary would be to accept a humiliation that would probably end his hopes of being prime minister.

On the back benches, in contrast, he would be a powerful and threatening figure. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister would have removed one of the few impressive members of his cabinet because of his own political insecurity. It would be a foolhardy move and there would be a distinct possibility that Sunak would be back in Downing Street – but in No 10 rather than No 11 – in very short order.

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Johnson surely knows all this, which means that he is not going to try to demote Sunak at the next reshuffle. It was just bluster. But, even though the story does not tell us much about what will happen in the next reshuffle, it does highlight three points.

[see also: A series of polls show the Prime Minister’s approval rating in decline]

First, the Prime Minister is far too loose-lipped. It is reckless to talk about moving your Chancellor in a meeting at which, reportedly, around 20 people were present. It was almost inevitable that at least one of those attending would leak it and at least one other would confirm its veracity. It is the type of careless talk that might have moved markets (if the markets had taken it seriously) and can destabilise trust. Even if, somehow, the story had not made it to journalists, it would have inevitably made it back to Sunak.

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This is not the only recent instance of the Prime Minister engaging mouth before brain. Joking about Margaret Thatcher’s pit closures and the benefits they had in reducing carbon emissions was not a clever thing to say in Scotland and as the leader of a party that won parliamentary constituencies at the last election thanks to the votes of ex-miners. (Thatcher was, of course, right to close economically unviable pits, just as Harold Wilson had been right to do so in even greater numbers, but her pit closure programme had nothing to do with – and predated her interest in – climate change.)

Second, there is curious detail in the Sunday Times piece that the first Johnson knew about the Chancellor’s letter about travel restrictions was when he read it in the newspapers because it had not been put into his red box. It is impossible to know for sure if that is true but I find that surprising. That the letter was put into his red box but not read would be less surprising. If it was not in his red box, this might be because his private office is very selective as to the papers he sees because they know, from experience, how much he gets through. Whatever the explanation, our system of government depends heavily on prime ministers reading a lot of paperwork. If the prime minister is unwilling or incapable of doing so, problems will occur.

Third, and most importantly, this does signify a deterioration of the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. There is usually some tension between whoever holds these positions but Johnson and Sunak have markedly different instincts towards public spending. The recent decline in Johnson’s popularity – apparently the consequence of his short-lived attempt to evade the quarantine restrictions for those who get pinged – cannot have helped. Sunak is relatively untarnished by this episode, presumably because the public thinks the “pilot scheme” suggestion was the Prime Minister’s little wheeze. And so they might.

To be fair, it is not surprising that Johnson took a cynical view of the Chancellor’s letter. He is well placed to spot when a senior colleague is on manoeuvres. One of the curiosities of being a cabinet colleague of Johnson’s was that we would sometimes learn of his contributions to cabinet discussions in advance – contributions that often put the government as a whole in a difficult position – so it must be galling when others use similar tactics.

Where this ends is difficult to say. But if the conflict between Johnson and Sunak were to escalate further, it is the Chancellor who is currently most likely to prevail.

[see also: What a joke between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak tells us about government policy]