Sideline Sunak

The Chancellor does not want the ball


Perched on the Conservative front bench before Prime Minister’s Questions, Rishi Sunak peered first over one shoulder, and then the other. He may have been checking for surprise parties. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been somewhat undone by the revelation that he accidentally attended Boris Johnson’s surprise birthday bash. It’s hard not to sympathise. Visitors to Number 10 over the past couple of years have run a constant risk of finding themselves accomplices to some crime or other. Anyone entering the Cabinet Room would be best advised to knock loudly and then count slowly to ten before they open the door. 

Like trying to lasso fog

If the Prime Minister does end up being brought down by parties, Sunak will inevitably face questions about how many of these he attended, and why he stayed quiet. And there would be a certain pleasing symmetry to Sunak being sabotaged by Johnson, as it was Sunak who helped elevate Johnson back in 2019, when he was a key early advocate of the “never mind the character flaws, bask in the charisma” approach that is paying off so well for the Tories at the moment.

It helps to explain why the Chancellor has tried to distance himself from the Prime Minister. Two weeks ago, he went to Devon during PMQs, which was a bit obvious. This week he took the more measured approach of sitting on the front bench, but out of sight of the TV cameras. Liz Truss and Priti Patel were between the two men, providing a safety buffer. 

In the spotlight, Johnson and Keir Starmer went round in circles. Questioning Johnson on this stuff must be like trying to lasso fog. When the Labour leader asked if ministers who mislead parliament should resign, the Prime Minister responded that Britain had the fastest booster jab roll-out in Europe. When Starmer asked whether Johnson was going to quit, he was told that if the country had listened to him, it would still be in lockdown. Tory MPs cheered, Labour MPs jeered, and in the Speaker’s chair, Lindsay Hoyle gestured in frustration. 

The Prime Minister began to treat it as a game. Starmer said the Downing Street parties were “serious”, and Johnson replied that the really serious issue was the Ukraine. He started talking about that instead. Would the Sue Gray report be published in full, Starmer asked? People wanted to talk about the cost-of-living crisis, Johnson said, and launched into the answer to a question that hadn’t been asked. There was, as ever with Johnson, something awe-inspiring about his shamelessness. So high, you can’t get over it, so low, you can’t get under it, so wide, you can’t get round it, oh what wonderful chutzpah! 

Down the bench, Sunak seemed to be trying to shrink. He is not the largest of men, but he had folded himself up. His legs were crossed and he was wedged sideways, his hands clasped in his lap. 

No wonder the Chancellor is edging away

Starmer tried to widen the attack to the Cabinet. They were, he said, “more and more complicit”. The government had “shown nothing but contempt for the decency, honesty and respect that define this country.” Sunak uncrossed and recrossed his legs. He picked at his thumb with his forefinger. 

At the despatch box, the Prime Minister was going Full Nixon. “For all sorts of reasons many people may want me out of the way,” he said. This backfired slightly, as Labour’s frontbench all laughed and pointed at Truss and Sunak. The Chancellor shook his head, as if horrified at the very thought. May the Boris live for ever!

Johnson finished his reply to Starmer with a new taunt – “a lawyer, not a leader”. It was slightly odd, given that the Prime Minister is likely to need the services of a lawyer himself quite soon. There was a lot of noise from Tory MPs, and Sunak dutifully patted his leg, but his mind may have been elsewhere. He pulled out his phone. 

With the main event out of the way, the Prime Minister swept onwards. Nothing would stop him now. Not even Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP, who demanded the prime minister get rid of the Irish Sea border. How would Johnson reply to this criticism of the Brexit deal he personally negotiated, and on which he fought and won the general election? Would he squirm? Would he mollify? Would he explain? Of course not. He agreed. 

“I support passionately the right honourable gentleman’s indignation,” Johnson began. “I never thought, when we negotiated, that it would mean 200 businesses would stop supplying Northern Ireland.”

From another Prime Minister, that would have been a damning admission of failure. From Boris Johnson it was a rallying call. Another man might have been held back by some vague awareness that they had in fact been warned of all of this in advance and had denied it on camera. Not this man. He can trash his own deal without even flinching.

Out in the TV studios, a small number of Tories were still defending their man. Perhaps they believe that he wouldn’t be confidently denying everything if he didn’t have a card up his sleeve, a secret plan. They should pay more attention. There is nothing and no one that Boris Johnson can’t disown. If he thought it would save his skin, he’d sack Sunak for his inadvertent attendance at his birthday party. No wonder the Chancellor is edging away.

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