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Rishi Sunak has thrived in the pandemic, but his biggest challenges are yet to come

Postat la Jan 22, 2021

R ishi Sunak ended 2020 as the most popular politician in the country. However, the chances of him finishing this year in the same spot are growing slimmer by the day. As the chancellor attempts to work out a path back from £400bn of spending, his critics are circling and they are coming from all angles.

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Sunak’s first 11 months as chancellor have proved unpredictable. He had initially believed the toughest part of the job would be the last-minute budget he had to piece together when he was promoted after Sajid Javid’s resignation. But a much bigger challenge soon arrived in the form of a pandemic.

While Sunak’s cabinet colleagues – from his boss Boris Johnson through to Gavin Williamson – have found their reputations weakened by the toll of governing through a public health emergency, “Dishy Rishi” emerged as an unlikely success story.

As well as splashing the billions, he was praised for how Treasury schemes stood up under strain, his media performance and his slick online presentation.

But “Brand Rishi” was about more than just competence. As the former No 10 pollster James Johnson put it, he was seen in focus groups to possess something rare for a politician: there is “this sense of he’s not like a normal MP, he’s more like one of us, he’s on our side”, said one respondent.

Little wonder then that Sunak has been at the top of Labour’s attack list. Those around Keir Starmer think that the government’s poll numbers are being propped up by its reputation for economic competence. At the same time, several are sceptical that Johnson will lead the Tories into the next election.

There have been efforts to assign Sunak blame over the government’s handling of Covid – pointing to the fact he has been a “cabinet hawk”, arguing against severe restrictions until recently. Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds used an LSE speech on Thursday to single out her counterpart for blame. Dodds, however, has her own internal battles, with pressure growing for her to make more of a mark.

This is, in part, why the critics who ought to worry Sunak most are within his own party, where the mood is changing. “Rishi’s biggest problem is the people who think he is a threat to their own ambitions,” says an old-timer, suggesting hostilities lie in the ministerial ranks. As the old Westminster saying has it, in the House of Commons your opponents sit opposite and your enemies behind you.

MPs report in recent weeks an attempt by allies of the cabinet doves (those in favour of restrictions) to “set the narrative straight” on the Covid debate. “People are all too keen now to say Rishi’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme added to infections,” says an MP on the receiving end of one such briefing.

“There’s not a full-on anti-Rishi movement yet, but people are much more open about criticising him and his approach,” says a Tory MP, after a bruising week for the chancellor, featuring a vote on whether the £20-a-week universal credit uplift should be extended.

The Treasury was the main blocker – telling MPs that if the benefits increase was extended, the hole left in the public finances would be akin to adding 5p to fuel duty. This wasn’t enough to dissuade MPs, with the Northern Research Group among those backing the extension. An “uneasy truce” has broken out as the uplift is now expected to be extended because the prime minister “got spooked”, according to an official. Yet the dispute points to wider unease ahead. It’s on spending that Sunak has the most to worry about.

Just as he has done little to hide his concerns over extending the uplift, he has also made clear his view that borrowing must be stemmed. The chancellor is adamant that emergency day-to-day spending cannot become permanent.

He faces an uphill battle. The Tory party does not agree on the need to reduce spending, let alone where the burden ought to fall. Even Sunak’s cut to international aid spending still has to get through the Commons – with Theresa May criticising it once again this week in a Daily Mail op-ed.

The March budget was initially viewed in No 11 as the time when Sunak would have taken his first tentative steps to show what the medium-term economic plan was going to be. But with the pandemic still in full swing, he faces a moving picture in which he might have to extend furlough.

Any difficult decisions are unlikely to find much support from economists either – with many warning against measures that reduce the deficit too soon in the recovery. Yet this argument misses an aspect that has not escaped the chancellor’s attention: the election cycle. Tax rises might make most economic sense in a couple of years’ times, but that’s also just before the general election and therefore politically toxic.

How will Sunak manoeuvre this new terrain? Those close to the chancellor insist that he’s not afraid of the challenge ahead – nor of dropping in those approval ratings. “He is not going to shy away just to be popular, that’s not what good politicians do,” says an ally. Instead, they say, he will be guided by fairness and a commitment to be honest about the challenges ahead.

This will be the real test: in times of turmoil, has the chancellor done enough to convince the public that he is still on their side? If not, there will be plenty of people – on both sides of the Commons – all too pleased to point this out.

  • Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor