The Daily Telegraph
A presidential pose that does nothing to calm backbench banter
It was a picture that spoke a thousand words about Rishi Sunak’s status as the Government’s rising star. Flanked by portraits of past prime ministers, the Chancellor appeared positively presidential as he strode up the Downing Street staircase to give a press conference on his Winter Economic Plan.
The image – one of many similarly imposing snapshots on the Treasury’s Flickr account – received a frosty reception in No 10 amid scurrilous backbench banter about the 40-yearold rookie being lined up as Boris Johnson’s successor.
It didn’t help that the photograph coincided with what one insider described as a “communications cock up” over Mr Sunak’s announcement that he was delaying the autumn budget last month.
Although “very senior” figures are thought to have been informed beforehand, the news came as a complete surprise to most of Downing Street.
The source said: “People at No 10 were taken aback. The first quite a few people heard about it was when they saw it on Sky News.”
A second source corroborated the story, adding: “Very senior people were aware but there were others who had no idea and seemed angry they hadn’t been given advance notice. Something very weird went on that day.”
It is certainly odd when you consider that a “joint economic unit” of special advisers to Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak was set up precisely to avoid tensions that festered between No 10 and No 11 during the Blair/brown era.
Indeed, the very reason Sajid Javid refused to carry on as Chancellor was because of Dominic Cummings’s demand that his Treasury team be placed under Downing Street’s control.
But with Mr Sunak yesterday revealing his “frustration” at the 10pm curfew imposed by the Prime Minister, the pair appear to be increasingly pulling in opposite directions in their response to the crisis.
The chasm appeared at its widest when Mr Johnson was conspicuous by his absence at Mr Sunak’s Commons statement on Sept 24 to announce that the furlough scheme would be replaced with a Jobs Support Scheme.
As the PM was at a police station advocating the use of ever more draconian fines, his Downing Street neighbour was telling the House how Britain “must learn to live with” the virus and “live without fear”. Pointing out that “the price our country is paying is wider” than the death toll, onlookers could only infer that Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak were on opposite sides of the lives versus livelihoods debate.
It is undoubtedly an uncomfortable place for a low-tax, libertarian PM to be. Only on Saturday, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson was at pains to point out that he plans to pay for the cost of the pandemic through a “free market-led recovery”, dismissing talk of rivalry between him and Mr Sunak as “untrue”.
Insisting yesterday that the Tories would not “borrow our way out of any hole” and had a “sacred responsibility” to balance the books, it is little wonder Mr Sunak also felt the need to shower praise on Mr Johnson.
Describing his “friendship” as “invaluable”, during a speech at the virtual Conservative party conference, he said: “I’ve seen up close the burden the Prime Minister carries. We all know he has an ability to connect with people in a way few politicians manage. It is a special and rare quality.
“But what the commentators don’t see, the thing I see, is the concern and care he feels, every day, for the well-being of the people of our country.
“Yes, it’s been difficult, challenges are part of the job, but on the big calls, in the big moments, Boris Johnson has got it right and we need that leadership.”
Seemingly keen to stress his relative inexperience, he thanked Mr Johnson for “entrusting me with this job” and at a later press conference, revealed he always calls him “Prime Minister”, despite his request to call him “Boris”.
He even went so far as to rule himself out as a possible rival. Asked whether he wants to be prime minister, he replied: “Definitely not, seeing what the PM has to deal with. This is a job hard enough for me.”
Recent polls suggest the public has more confidence in the Chancellor than he has in himself. On Sunday, a survey found 47 per cent of the public would prefer to see Mr Sunak replace Mr Johnson – dwarfing the next nearest rival Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, tied on seven per cent with Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary.
Could this explain rumours of Mr Cummings – historically always closely allied to Mr Gove – “cosying up” to Mr Sunak in recent weeks, after his father-in-law Sir Humphry Wakefield remarked that the PM planned to step down in six months’ time?
Insiders say the PM’S chief adviser has been “talking up” the Chancellor in meetings after he agreed over the summer to free up a £500 million investment in the collapsed satellite operator Oneweb, helping to achieve Mr Cummings’ dream of the UK being at the forefront of space technology.
“There’s lots of whispers about Dom manoeuvring,” said a source. “He won’t ever put all his eggs in one basket.”
Yet with Tory MPS insisting that the next PM will be “anyone not aligned to Cummings”, the inventor of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme might want to be careful who he breaks bread with.