This was a surreal day to watch Rishi Sunak at the Covid inquiry. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom giving evidence about his role as chancellor during the greatest national emergency in recent history should have been a blockbuster event. Instead, it was something of a side show.
While Sunak faced the indefatigable Hugo Keith KC in that drab Paddington hearing room, the real drama lay three miles south, in Westminster, as the government’s flagship Rwanda plan was eviscerated by the European Research Group’s “star chamber”. The news that the band of right-wing Tory MPs instrumental in destroying Theresa May’s Brexit deal had rejected the Rwanda bill – a piece of legislation that declares the African country a safe place to send asylum seekers – will be far more significant to the Prime Minister’s future than his defence of his ministerial response to Covid.
This is a shame for Sunak, as he must have spent even more time preparing to take on Keith than he did revising for his A-levels. The contrast with his predecessor-but-one could not have been more marked. Whereas Boris Johnson waffled and stuttered, frequently getting lost in his own contradictions and crumbling under relentless interrogation, Sunak appeared to relish the challenge. He came armed with a folder of notes, which he referred to throughout with enthusiasm, and spoke with the eager eloquence of a schoolboy who’s been looking forward to their French oral exam. On more than one occasion he had to be told to slow down, so great was his excitement at getting to use all his facts. Keith might just have met his match in terms of slick superiority (and not merely because both were sporting blue ties). “Can we bring up paragraph 257 of my witness statement?” Sunak interjected at one point, barely managing to conceal his smugness.
That’s not to say that he got an easy ride, or that his performance will have satisfied Covid commentators. The list of things that Sunak, a man with degrees from Oxford and Stanford, was “unable to recall” was really quite concerning. (He might want to use his private health insurance to see a doctor about this amnesia.) It included everything from when he switched phones and whether he was advised to safeguard his early pandemic WhatsApp messages (which, very sadly, he was not able to provide to the inquiry), to what his views were on various Covid restrictions and whether certain debates, such as the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed, even took place.
Most remarkably of all, Sunak claimed to not remember the meeting on 23 March 2020 when Johnson decided to implement a national lockdown. The then prime minister took the momentous decision to issue the first mass stay-at-home order in the history of the United Kingdom, and his chancellor has no recollection of it? Really?
Sunak’s defence of his infamous Eat Out to Help Out scheme will also have antagonised his critics. Why, Keith pressed him, had he not raised the idea with anyone outside Downing Street – the health secretary, say, or the chief medical officer, or anyone with any kind of science background whatsoever – before the day on which the scheme was announced? Because, Sunak replied, wide-eyed and earnest, it was a fiscal intervention within a previously agreed relaxation of social distancing rules. What was the point of telling them? The argument that this policy, which was so clearly intended to get people back into physical restaurants while the virus was still circulating, should perhaps have been discussed with the wider public health team seemed to baffle him. “The onus is surely on the people who now believe that it was a risk to have raised it at the time when something could have been done about it, if they felt strongly,” he sniffed.
Nonetheless, there were no fireworks, no smoking gun, no “gotcha” moment at which the Prime Minister’s delicate concoction of excuses and self-aggrandisement collapsed. There were a few testy exchanges, but compared with the puddles of incoherence and shame to which other witnesses – namely Johnson and Matt Hancock – have been reduced, Sunak triumphed. The hours spent poring over his witness statement and the testimony of his former colleagues had clearly paid off. He had aced his exam.
Too bad, then, that it will help him not a jot. The skills on display in the hearing room today – peppy alertness and book-smart fluency within the narrow parameters of a formal inquiry – are of little use in the existential crisis Sunak now faces. His party is mutinying. He has backed himself into a stalemate over Rwanda: his MPs (probably) cannot remove him but are so at war with him and each other that he can achieve nothing of significance. He is unable to find within himself the kind of stirring rhetoric that resonates with the public, nor to master the delicate balance of people management critical for a leader facing challenging times. Today was a lesson to the technocratic Prime Minister: there’s more to success than doing your homework.