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6 October 2021

How dangerous are the tensions between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak for the Conservatives?

The differences between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor are benefiting the Tories. But it’s naive to think that will last.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson will cast himself as the first prime minister in decades with the “the guts” to reform the British economy’s “old broken model”. Also coming in today: the end of the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit. 

That’s the essential tension at the heart of the Conservative Party. Levelling up is a project of the Prime Minister’s; cutting Universal Credit is a project of the Chancellor’s.

The Chancellor used his speech to praise his Conservative predecessors and explicitly to set himself up as the continuation of the past ten years; the Prime Minister will use his to criticise his predecessors and to set himself up as a rejection of at least the past 30. 

For the moment, the difference in approach and outlook between the two has any number of benefits to the Conservative Party, both internally and externally. Johnson’s unorthodox approach convinces voters tired of the same old same old, that Britain is changing and that this is a brand new administration, not the latest leg in a very old one. Sunak’s celebration of the old orthodoxies reassures voters who did rather well out of the “old broken model” that things aren’t really all that different from the past and that this is still the same old Conservative Party in a new shell. Between them, they keep the Tory electoral coalition alive, intact and, mostly, happy.

The comparison between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is, I think, the wrong one. As the BBC’s excellent new documentary The New Labour Revolution captures well, Blair and Brown were both politicians from the right of the party with a deep and long-lasting commitment to modernising Labour. Most of their disagreements were about personnel, with comparatively minor divisions over some policy issues. As far as substantial policy divisions are concerned, the only major conflicts were over foundation hospitals and the euro.

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The Johnson-Sunak dynamic is a lot more like the relationship between Harold Macmillan, the last Conservative prime minister to win Hartlepool, and his first chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft. Macmillan was an unorthodox Conservative prime minister in terms of his political approach and he clashed with his chancellors over economic strategy and with ministers over prices and incomes policy. These were substantial disagreements that defined the future direction of the Conservative Party: it essentially opted to follow the path set out by Thorneycroft rather than the one preferred by Macmillan. 

Yes, Johnson and Sunak’s relationship is personally warmer because, well, Sunak is a warm and congenial politician who has warm personal relationships with practically everybody. He’s not the kind of politician to “do a Thorneycroft” and oversee the resignation of his entire ministerial team.

But what ultimately made the Macmillan-Thorneycroft axis unsustainable wasn’t the absence of warmth, but economic events that exposed and aggravated the differences between the two men. If the return of inflation proves to be a sustained and prolonged phenomenon, or if the comprehensive spending review causes controversy within the government, the differences between Johnson and Sunak may become more important and less win-win for the Tory party.

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