In July 2020, as the UK emerged from its first lockdown and questions appeared about what might come next for the economy, the BBC news team made a cartoon video portraying Rishi Sunak as Superman. The video was, of course, completely doolally: there might not be a standard journalistic rule against this sort of thing, but only in the way there’s no rule against slaughtering your sources. It’s just kind of assumed you already know not to do it. One shot of the video showed him comforting an elderly lady with a hug against his implausibly muscular chest. Her head came up to his nipples. Not only were the BBC giving the impression that a Tory chancellor was the sort of selfless hero who, gosh darn, just plain wanted to help people, they were also implying he was about a foot taller than he actually is.
Tragically, the video has since been removed “for editorial reasons”. The BBC said: “While we don’t think that readers would take this at face value, on reflection we think the illustrations struck the wrong note.” The video, nevertheless, was merely the most extreme example of a tone that attached to much other coverage of Sunak in his first few months as Chancellor. And while such a tone was unhelpful, the psychology behind it, at least, was pretty easy to understand.
In the spring of 2020, as we all grappled with a pandemic and a shutdown of the sort none of us had ever encountered before, we all desperately wanted someone to tell us it would be OK. Sunak, by introducing furlough and other schemes intended to stop the economy falling over, had seemingly done so (even if, as I can tell you from personal experience, those schemes had some rather large holes in them).
What’s more, Sunak had risen so fast — becoming Chancellor in February 2020, just over two years after his first ministerial job — that he seemed untainted by the previous decade of Tory government. There’s a substantial part of the British media that longs for the drama of a changing of the guard in Westminster, while being unable to countenance the possibility that maybe the Conservative Party should lose. Sunak provided a solution to a problem.
Of course, all this “dishy Rishi” stuff was absolutely terrible for accountability. Sunak is not some unbiased public servant but a Tory ideologue, committed to both a smaller state and lower taxes on the rich. He was not untainted by the decade of Tory government but a product of it: he had been an MP since 2015 and interned for Conservative Campaign Headquarters even as a student. Somehow the commenting classes managed to convince themselves that a man who’d only been a minister since 2018 was in some way qualified to be Prime Minister. This may be good for those of us who want to see the Tories lose the next election, but it’s hard to imagine it’s a recipe for competent governance.
In any case, we can all take some comfort from the fact that, however bad the strange hero worship of Sunak has been for the country, it’s been a whole lot worse for Rishi Sunak himself. It allowed him to delude himself that the thing the public loved was not simply free money and a government that seemingly had their back, but actually Brand Rishi. So watching it all unravel, and Sunak discover that his own ideas are about as unpopular as dysentery, has actually been rather fun. In the last few weeks we’ve seen him promise catastrophically unpopular policies, seemingly brief friendly newspapers about how upset he was by the response, and then promise an official inquiry into who it is being mean about him. One lot of briefing suggested that if we don’t all stop being beastly he might run away to California; another briefing then suggested that the first lot of briefings, which failed to have the desired effect, had been incorrect.
There are many ways in which the Chancellor is not a superhero. But a big one is this: superheroes are not known for their public tantrums.