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21 December 2021

Boris Johnson’s woes spell danger for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss

The risk for Sunak is that he becomes the scapegoat, the risk for Truss is that the Tories see her as more of the same.

By Stephen Bush

Shortly after the removal of Dominic Cummings, civil servants found themselves summoned up to Boris Johnson’s flat above Downing Street for what one official only half-jokingly referred to as a “show trial”. They joked that senior civil servants were having to engage in ritual denunciations: “yes, I smiled at Dom in the corridor once, but I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Now a similar question is being asked in Downing Street about the wave of leaks that have engulfed Johnson’s administration in scandal, and deepened the air of crisis around his government. “Who is leaking from the inner circle?” is the question being asked, and with increasing intensity. The most recent leak is a photograph of Johnson, his wife and more than a dozen other people enjoying wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden during lockdown, in a breach of government regulations on social contact. An internal investigation is under way into the leaks, and who is behind them. 

Most leak inquiries fail, and I see no compelling reason to believe that this one is likely to be an exception. But the inquiry is symptomatic of a broader problem within the Tory tent: in different ways, the two apparent leadership frontrunners, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have a difficult time ahead of them.

As Ailbhe explains well here, Truss is fundamentally the loyalist choice: the Foreign Secretary is an upbeat blond politician who is good at serving red meat to the party faithful, while seeming to depart from political orthodoxy. Her pitch is in some ways “a brighter Boris”: all the things that Conservative MPs liked (or at least, the things they think their voters liked) about Johnson, without the downside. 

Sunak, by contrast, will be viewed as a departure from the previous administration. As Chancellor he has clashed with Downing Street more than most and his political style is markedly different from Johnson’s. And although Treasury sources have forcefully denied being behind the leak, if the leak inquiry finds nothing you can easily see how they come to be blamed privately, for no reason other than they are the most convenient scapegoat. 

The danger for Truss is that the Conservatives will, when the end comes, see her as more of the same. But the danger for Sunak is that, fairly or unfairly, if the final days of Johnson see a growing level of distrust and paranoia within his government, he may well become the candidate who the present Prime Minister and his allies want to stop above all else.

[See also: Can Liz Truss, Boris Johnson’s “deliverer”, become his successor?]

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