Rishi Sunak is a dead man walking after yesterday (12 April) passing up the chance to leave Boris Johnson’s cabinet on his own terms. He is now set to be sacked as Chancellor in the coming months, according to three highly placed sources in Tory party circles. They may be wrong. But taken together, the three sources tell a consistent and remarkable story of animosity at the top of British government – and of a far greater degree of rancour from Johnson towards Sunak than has been previously reported.
Inside No 10, I am told that Johnson has become openly contemptuous of Sunak, referring to him disparagingly by at least two expletive-laden nicknames. Both convey the sense of betrayal that Johnson feels after Sunak failed to offer his full support to Johnson at the peak of the partygate crisis in February.
At Chequers ten days ago – prior to the damning tax revelations that have scuttled Sunak’s national standing – Johnson was already delighting in the blowback Sunak was facing after his Spring Statement fell flat three weeks ago. Nadine Dorries, a cabinet colleague of Sunak’s and a long-time Johnson loyalist, was a guest that weekend.
Perhaps most fatally, Lynton Crosby – the most trusted political strategist in the Tory party, who is informally advising Johnson in No 10 – is also gunning for Sunak. He has let it be known that he intends to finish the Chancellor off. And a senior cabinet minister who has not always opposed Sunak now thinks that the he “deserves everything he gets”.
What has Sunak done to deserve such vituperation? Johnson’s vindictiveness is not, perhaps, surprising. Sunak is, like James Comey with Donald Trump, discovering the cost of not backing an uncompromising boss unconditionally. But why are others in the party so content, and even eager, to see Sunak deposed?
Sunak’s swift, serious and supportive action during the pandemic won him a rare national popularity for a politician. That masked an underlying weakness: Sunak had no base within the party when he became Chancellor, and over the next two years he failed to forge one as MPs rarely met in person. But Sunak’s lack of outreach went further than that. There are Treasury ministers who feel distant from him, let alone backbenchers.
Having succeeded in life by “being very strict and only playing what’s in front of him”, as an MP put it to me earlier this year, Sunak has struggled to play the politics of partygate. Now he has been fined for breaching lockdown rules alongside Johnson, when it is Johnson alone who presided over the law-breaking culture across Downing Street during the pandemic. Sunak’s appearance at Johnson’s birthday party appears to have been inadvertent: he thought he was turning up to a work meeting with Johnson.
There is a misfortune to Sunak’s plight. For much of 2021, he nimbly raised considerable amounts of tax without provoking Tory unrest: something that anyone on the economic left should welcome. But he has alienated everyone in 2022, from Tories who want taxes cut to voters outraged that Sunak did so little in his Spring Statement to prevent 1.3 million people falling into poverty.
Johnson, meanwhile, appears to be as fortunate as ever. As the Guardian front page puts it this morning (13 April): “PM: I broke my own law, but I refuse to go.” That is the stark point we appear to have reached. “The world would probably be in a different place,” a senior Tory MP told me last night, “without the invasion of Ukraine. You can’t escape from that.” The timing of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation, and Vladimir Putin’s war, have put Johnson in a position to survive partygate. Improbably, it is Rishi Sunak – the heir apparent just weeks ago – who is now set to take the fall.
[See also: We cannot have a criminal Prime Minister]