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13 January 2022

Rishi Sunak’s slow support of the PM shows naked ambition

If Boris Johnson does survive, Sunak’s continued presence in the Treasury – and perhaps in the cabinet – will pose a threat to his authority.

By Tim Ross

A week used to be a long time in politics. So truncated have political lifespans become that eight hours is now an eternity. That’s how long it took for the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to give his mealy-mouthed support to the Prime Minister, and in so doing, he revealed his own ambitions for the top job. 

While other ministers and MPs braved the airwaves in interviews supporting Boris Johnson yesterday and this morning, Sunak tweeted just 20 words that gave a strictly time-limited endorsement of the Prime Minister’s position. 

“The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry,” he said. If reports in the Times are correct, that means Johnson has his neighbour’s backing until perhaps the end of next week. 

The Chancellor’s excuse for his delayed reaction to the most grovelling prime ministerial apology in living memory – that he was “on a visit all today” and “meeting MPs” – was almost as ridiculous as Johnson’s claim that he thought the Number 10 booze up was a “work event”. Sunak is the minister with the slickest social media operation in the cabinet, who took to autographing his own tweets during the height the pandemic. If he had wanted to tweet his “support” sooner, he would have done. 

Downing Street aides are said to be worried that Sunak could resign and call on Johnson to go. It is not an unreasonable fear. So far, a clutch of backbenchers and the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross have all gone public with demands for the PM to quit. These are dangerous times for Britain’s leader. 

But there are risks for those who want to succeed him too. 

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It may be that Johnson has bought himself enough time to hold onto office until Gray’s report is published. If so, he could yet survive. She’s a civil servant and unlikely to range far beyond her remit of establishing the facts. The notion that she will deliver the killer blow to Johnson seems far-fetched, especially if the facts are no worse than he has already confessed.   

If Johnson does survive, Sunak’s continued presence in the Treasury – and perhaps in the cabinet – will pose a threat to his authority, and to his own policy agenda. The Chancellor is already said to be lukewarm on levelling up (he failed to mention it at all in his Conservative conference speech last year). Even a bruised Johnson will surely have to find a way to deal with Sunak in the future. Perhaps a nice job as leader of the House (the cabinet’s traditional exit lounge), or running the Northern Ireland office. 

The current Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, is a veteran of Theresa May’s bloody cabinet battles over Brexit and is wise enough to know there is rarely a price to pay in the Tory party for loyalty. Speaking to Sky News, he gave Johnson his backing to lead the party into the next election. 

Another MP with more experience than Sunak is Liz Truss. She’s been in the cabinet (mostly) since David Cameron’s day and could be spotted doing the loyal thing of sitting next to the PM during his half hour of agony on Wednesday during Prime Minister’s Questions

Sunak’s gamble could yet pay off for him. Becoming May’s most public foe helped Johnson eventually secure the leadership. But Johnson is in almost every way a unique politician. After he quit the cabinet in 2018 he was written off, not for the first time. Sunak has effectively written him off again. Will he live to regret it?

[See also: Boris Johnson’s non-apology takes the public for fools]

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