How long will Rishi Sunak last?

During the announcement of the new NHS and social care tax, the chancellor was notably absent. That’s never a good sign

September 22, 2021
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Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Six of the last nine prime ministers only had one chancellor and the other three had one for most of their tenure. Denis Healey, Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and George Osborne defined their governments, for good or ill, almost as much as the prime ministers they served. So where does this leave Chancellor Sunak?

The fact that I am even asking shows he may be having problems. He still has a slick PR machine, and he looked like a shoo-in for Tory leader last year had the grim reaper taken Boris Johnson from the scene when he had just been appointed and was enjoying his role as the UK’s Covid sugar daddy. But 18 months later it all looks less assured, particularly if there is no Tory vacancy for a good while longer with the resurgence of Boris.

There were two moments this summer when Rishi’s position suddenly started looking vulnerable. The first was when it was briefed that Boris was speculating out loud about replacing him. This was apropos some minor piece of exasperation, but prime ministers briefing against their chancellors is market-moving stuff, and the comments weren’t denied. Even as the cabinet reshuffle was taking place last week a senior Treasury official told me they weren’t sure whether Rishi was staying. In the event the Prime Etonian, as I have come to call him, decided to replace his unpopular foreign secretary, not his shallowly popular chancellor. But next time?

More consequential, now that Rishi is staying for at least a reshuffle longer, was his role a fortnight ago in the new national insurance tax to raise an extra £12bn a year for the NHS and social care. This was a major tax-and-spend—maybe the major tax-and-spend—play of this parliament. The chancellor’s part in the announcement was very remarkable. Remarkably absent.

The announcement of this comprehensive new funding settlement for the NHS and social care was made to parliament and the media by the prime minister. Much of the media was then done by Sajid Javid, the health secretary and, well, Rishi’s predecessor, who gave every appearance of having played a bigger part in its formulation than his successor. Oh, and when it was presented to the House of Commons last week, this was done by a junior Treasury minister, Jesse Norman, who was almost immediately afterwards sacked in the reshuffle.

Chancellors absent from the scene of major tax-and-spend actions are usually on the way out or the way to irrelevance, with their policies decided in No 10. That is true of even the mightiest. When Lawson was overruled by Thatcher on the poll tax, which he sensibly opposed as impractical and uncollectable, he too was absent from its announcement—and resigned soon afterwards, believing (also rightly) that Thatcher had run out of road.

Equally curious, and telling, is that after more than 18 months in post, we still don’t even know whether Rishi is essential wet or dry, or anything much else about his strategy on fiscal or wider economic reform. People in Treasury meetings with him tell me he is a “hawk” on spending and deficits. Except that almost his every public utterance, courting popularity, is a big spending announcement—or, like the new NHS and social care tax, is a big spending announcement made by someone else. Equally tellingly, the cut in universal credit taking place this week is also being greeted by deafening silence by the chancellor. If he is a hawk, he isn’t one—like Clarke or Lawson, big self-confident Tory pugilists—prepared to make the argument publicly. Rishi, we are told, admires Thatcher and Thatcherism, but again you would have to divine that from the tea leaves rather than from anything in his red books thus far.

So maybe last year was peak Rishi. And there’s another thing that was bugging me even then. The person who essentially made Rishi chancellor, and manoeuvred his predecessor out of his job, was Dominic Cummings. Remember him? I don’t think he wanted Rishi because he was his own man.