Rishi Sunak is off the leash and will win this dogfight with the prime minister

If Boris Johnson thought he was getting an obedient lapdog as chancellor, he has discovered that controlling the addition to the family can be a difficult job

Sean O'Grady
Monday 09 August 2021 16:19 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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News from the leakiest government in history: Boris Johnson is reportedly “furious” about the leaking of a letter from the chancellor about the need to relax travel rules.

After the leak of the Matt Hancock supersnog, Dominic Cummings’s non-stop revelations about our shopping trolley of a prime minister and even the news that Johnson once threatened to have his pet dog, Dilyn, euthanised, we now learn that he wants to have his other pet dog, the puppy-like Rishi Sunak, put down as well. Or, in that menacing half-joking way of the classic public school bully: “I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe it’s time we looked at Rishi as the next secretary of state for health. He could potentially do a very good job there.” Sunak, it seems, has also been cocking his leg where he shouldn’t.

This is not how it was supposed to be. Cast your mind back, if you can, to the prelapsarian Johnson era and you may recall that Johnson has sacked a chancellor of the exchequer before, a bloke named Sajid Javid, who, funnily enough, has now been reborn as the health secretary where indeed he is doing a potentially good job.

Just before Covid made a mess of everything, in February 2020, Johnson and Cummings came up with a cockamamie scheme to put Number 10 in charge of the Treasury and, while they were at it, make Cummings the bossman of every special adviser (Spad) in the Treasury and, it seemed, across Whitehall. Javid said it was a bad idea and took personal umbrage that “his” Spads should be reporting in (and snitching) to Cummings. Johnson begged Javid to stay and go along with it all, but Javid quit instead.

At the time he remarked that a prime minister needed people around him (ie a chancellor) who will give “clear and candid advice”. As everyone probably realises by now, that is only a small part of what Johnson requires from his close circle. Doing what they’re told and making it happen (where “it” is some mad idea for a new royal yacht or a tunnel to Ireland) are the preferred qualities. Cummings later said that he “fooled” Johnson into firing Javid because Javid was one of those dull conventional politicians who couldn’t be relied on to transform Britain. Something like that, anyway.

So Javid went and his junior, Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, was installed to carry out the Cummings-Johnson plan… and then nothing happened. Oftentimes when something doesn’t happen it doesn’t get much noticed, but the failure to subjugate the Treasury to the will of the people was hard to ignore. Perhaps Cummings used it solely as a ploy to manipulate Johnson into getting rid of Javid, or the coronavirus overtook everything, or Johnson lost interest when Cummings left. We don’t yet know.

What we do know is that Sunak, backed by the conventional but brilliant minds of Treasury staff, has made much the best impression on the public of any of Johnson’s ministers, and soon came to overshadow Johnson himself. If Johnson thought he was getting an obedient lapdog, a sort of keen-to-please version of Dilyn, he in fact discovered, as many lockdown dog owners have, that controlling the addition to the family can be a frustrating and difficult job. Sunak won’t fetch or beg, and even nips his “master” and leaves a nasty mess on the Downing Street carpet. Johnson wants him to get back into his kennel: Rishi won’t budge and just sits there snarling. A new pet, Liz Truss, is looking to get rehomed; could Number 11 be her forever home?

Without pulling out the old Lady Bracknell quote (oh, alright then), losing one chancellor of the exchequer may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both of them looks like carelessness. Actually the line does work well with Johnson because he is so careless. His MPs don’t like what’s going on, and neither do his activists. As someone said at the time of the Javid sacking, “you either go the Blair and Brown way, or you do the George and Dave way”, referring to the friction versus harmony of those respective “partnerships”.

They can see that Johnson treats the public finances solely as a means to bribe voters with their own money and indulge in his most deluded fantasies. Usually the public would find the replacement of one Tory chancellor by another less of a worry. But Johnson’s approval ratings have been slipping lately and the voters may just be beginning to realise that there’s a charlatan in charge who sees politics, more even than most successful politicians, as a bit of a game, and that the country isn’t being that well run.

Levelling up, building back better, bouncing back… it’s all slogans and no substance. A bit aimless. As the threat of Covid recedes, and the air of national crisis and urge to rally round recedes with it, the tide is going out, so to speak, and we can see who’s been swimming around without their trunks on. It’s not a pretty sight.

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