How do you solve a problem like Rishi Sunak? Earlier this year, when Keir Starmer was introducing himself to the public, the one way to put an unhappy expression on the faces of his closest allies was to ask them what they intended to do about the Chancellor. Now, Labour is either level or narrowly ahead of the Conservative Party in the polls for the first time since Boris Johnson entered Downing Street. Meanwhile, Starmer enjoys a comfortable lead over Johnson when voters are asked to assess his performance and fitness to govern.
The Conservative lead on managing the economy seems unassailable, however. This was unsurprising when Sunak was announcing measures to support the economy that were both generous and effective. But now the government’s income protection scheme is coming to a close – well ahead of those in other European countries – bringing with it a tide of redundancies. Meanwhile, across the country, businesses are being forced to shut or cease trading due to local lockdowns, with little in the way of economic support. For Labour, there is growing consternation that trust in the Tories isn’t falling alongside the United Kingdom’s employment rate.
A consensus in Westminster is forming about the culprit: Labour’s shadow chancellor, the former university lecturer and Oxford East MP Anneliese Dodds, who is seen as having failed to discomfort Sunak in the chamber or outside it. The most frequent question I hear from Tory MPs is not if, but when, Dodds will be sacked.
The picture among Labour MPs is more complicated. Dodds has not been in parliament long, having been elected in 2017, but she is well liked across the Parliamentary Labour Party because of her kindness and sharp mind. In that respect, she is a mirror image of Sunak, whose standing among his colleagues rests not only on his intellect, but also on his courtesy.
The difference is that no one in Westminster doubts Sunak is fiercely political: that he is, as one Conservative MP put it approvingly, “a deregulationist”, a George Osborne protégé who came into politics not to “level up” the nations and regions of the UK, but to level down regulatory barriers. The concern that some Labour MPs have about Dodds is that, although she has the intellectual calibre to be chancellor, it is less clear what she would do in the role.
Dodds, who is firmly from the middle of her party, was a member of the European Parliament before she entered Westminster and is known to have developed positions on both foreign and social policy. But, like her boss Starmer, she has had less to say about the Treasury’s core functions.
It is the importance of political vision that means MPs on Labour’s left and centre favour a promotion for Ed Miliband, while those on the party’s right pine for Rachel Reeves or Yvette Cooper. Each of these MPs has vocal champions in the press, and it is not unusual to read that they have a “big brain” to match or exceed that of Dodds.
The preferred adjective for Dodds, and indeed much of the shadow cabinet, is “anonymous”. The implication is that it’s no wonder Sunak is still excelling in the polls when the shadow chancellor has such a low profile. The reality, however, is more complex: a frequently forgotten fact is that, with the exception of the prime minister and their chancellor, most politicians are “anonymous”: the average person cannot pick them out of a line-up. That is as true of most of the politicians that Westminster designates “big beasts” as it is of those the commentariat declare invisible.
The reality, too, is that Dodds has got the big calls right. She was quick to highlight the threat of redundancies after the furlough scheme ends and, unlike many in Westminster, she didn’t write off Sunak when he became Chancellor. Her real problem now is the same one that Sunak faced when he moved into No 11: she has few allies in the media, and fewer still know much about her.
In his early days in office, Sunak, now seen as unassailable, was dismissed by commentators who took their cue from disgruntled allies of Sajid Javid. Now, Sunak has introduced himself both through set-piece events and by quietly cultivating MPs and journalists.
While Dodds and Sunak theoretically do battle with each other in the House of Commons, their real arena of combat is in the restaurants, cafés, bars and offices around Westminster: it is those face-to-face meetings with journalists and MPs that shape how the two politicians are talked about. The reason Labour MPs regard Dodds as a serious operator, and commentators do not, is that few of the latter group have had the opportunity to meet her.
The difficult truth of Covid-19 is that politics is ultimately a social profession. This is both because the two major parties are founded around class and economic interests, and because political success emerges through socialising, discreet plotting and the nurturing of contacts and columnists. Sunak, who is the most influential critic of lockdown in the cabinet, is not only an advocate for loosening restrictions; he is also benefiting from using the greater freedoms to build his personal brand, cement his alliances and enhance his profile.
Without the usual means of cultivating a following and establishing herself as a presence at Westminster, Dodds must take a great gamble: that Sunak’s championing of reopening the economy without first fixing the public health crisis will do so much damage to the economy and society that no amount of sympathetic profiles and support from parliamentary allies will be able to protect him. In which case, Westminster’s dismissal of Anneliese Dodds may look as out of place next year as the initial verdict on Sunak does today.
This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid