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Rishi Sunak Accused Of “Riding Two Horses” As He Defends Boris Johnson With One Eye On Succeeding Him

Rishi Sunak Accused Of “Riding Two Horses” As He Defends Boris Johnson With One Eye On Succeeding Him

Rishi Sunak is one of the leading contenders to take over from Boris Johnson if he is ousted over the "partygate" scandal (Alamy)

6 min read

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been accused of “trying to ride two horses” by offering the requisite support for the flailing Prime Minister while simultaneously jockeying for position ahead of his colleagues in what seems an increasingly inevitable Tory leadership contest.

The cabinet has rallied around Boris Johnson during a damaging few weeks in which he was forced to apologise to the Queen over allegations of parties in Downing Street during lockdown, and saw one of his own MPs defect to Labour, but Sunak’s defence of his boss has seemed somewhat tepid to some. 

A government source said the tenor of Sunak’s comments “has been noted in Number 10”, and by suggesting there should be tough consequences for rule-breaking or misleading the House, as Johnson stands accused, it was “clear he was trying to ride two horses”, with an eye on a run for the top job.

The Chancellor waited more than eight hours to tweet his support for the Prime Minister after Johnson issued an apology to the House of Commons over the party scandal last week, having travelled to Devon for an engagement rather than attending himself.

This week he appeared to cut short a TV interview and walk off camera when asked to express explicit support for Johnson. 

The suggestion Sunak has gone cold on Johnson for his own gain has been dismissed by a source close to him, who pointedly denied the abrupt end of the interview was a tactic to avoid giving his unequivocal backing to the Prime Minister.

They explained he had already answered more questions than had been agreed beforehand, and the broadcaster has since apologised for playing the footage of him leaving.

They said Sunak “fully supports” Johnson and echoed his call for “patience” while the senior civil servant Sue Gray carries out her investigation into alleged gatherings in Downing Street during lockdown. Gray’s conclusions are expected to be published this week. 

Johnson may have made it through this week without a vote of no confidence being triggered, but he is by no means out of the woods yet, with many Tory MPs reserving judgement on the Prime Minister’s future until Gray delivers her verdict.

Several Tory MPs have already made it clear that they don’t think he is the man to lead them into the next election, and it is seen as a question of when, not if, the required 54 letters are submitted to chair of the 1922 committee Sir Graham Brady and a confidence vote in the Prime Minister is triggered. 

In the event of a subsequent leadership contest, Sunak and the foreign secretary Liz Truss are considered to be frontrunners.

Truss leads the race with the bookies, but was herself recently embroiled in scandal when it was revealed she had insisted on an expensive Mayfair private members club linked to Tory donors to host Foreign Office dinners.

While Truss’ apparent manoeuvres to shore up support for a leadership campaign – including “fizz with Liz” events with influential Tory figures in her office – have seemed more blatant, so has her defence of Johnson, adding further fuel to rumours of tactical behaviour by Sunak. 

"I want the Prime Minister to continue as long as possible in his job,” she said this week, while on a visit to Australia. “He is doing a fantastic job. There is no leadership election."

Conservative Kevin Hollinrake, a fellow Yorkshire MP who is close to Sunak, rejected suggestions of calculated behaviour by the Chancellor in recent weeks.

He told PoliticsHome while Sunak has won many fans as a result of the way he’s managed the economy during the pandemic, his supporters have not been plotting to help him move from Number 11 to Number 10.

Hollinrake said suggestions of disloyalty by Sunak are wide of the mark, and that the wording of his much-discussed tweet on the day of Johnson’s apology to the Commons was “virtually the same in as Oliver Dowden and Sajid Javid’s”.

“I think we'd all breathe a sigh of relief if this situation moves on and we can get back to running the country,” he added.

“There's so many issues at hand at the moment; Brexit, Covid, cost of living and Ukraine to mention a few, so it really wouldn't help anybody at this point in time to have a four-month leadership campaign in the middle of all that.”

A potential contest had seemed closer than ever earlier this week, after a group of 2019-intake MPs – dubbed the “pork pie plotters” – briefed that they had launched a coordinated effort to submit letters of no confidence and believed they would have enough to trigger a ballot.

But after Christian Wakeford’s surprise defection to Labour, there were suggestions the Tories were refocused, amid reports that letters to Brady were even being withdrawn.

A government source put the failure for the 54 letters to materialise as of yet down instead to "TINA syndrome” – short for “there is no alternative”, suggesting while there are popular politicians in the Cabinet and beyond, nobody has support from across the Conservative party to take over right now.

Truss leads the race with the bookies, but was herself recently embroiled in scandal when it was revealed she had insisted on an expensive Mayfair private members club linked to Tory donors to host Foreign Office dinners. 

Sunak has long been in a prime position for low-key canvassing of support with a succession of MPs coming to see him in the Treasury to discuss ways to ease the looming cost of living crisis.

A source said it is “part of his job to listen to the parliamentary party and he has met MPs regularly since he became Chancellor, particularly ahead of major fiscal events or policy decisions”.

Another ally said any deviation from the core topic of the economy by Sunak simply showed his willingness to listen to ideas from colleagues.

The Joint Economic Unit, created ostensibly to give Number 10 more control over the Treasury by sharing advisors between the two departments, has allowed the Chancellor to build his own power base, with his splashy social media campaigns and signature policies, often complete with his actual signature.

Supporters say Sunak has always been loyal to the Prime Minister, and that they have been in lock step throughout a difficult period, but one former Number 10 advisor pointed to a leaked letter from the Chancellor that put him at odds with his boss over the relaxation of travel rules in the summer. It was claimed that Johnson threatened to demote him over the leak.

Sunak now faces some tough decisions over the cost of living, which could see the popularity built up from pandemic successes such as the furlough scheme and “Eat Out to Help Out” dissipate.

Inflation has already hit a 30-year high, and an announcement on the energy price cap due in a fortnight could send household bills spiralling from April, the same time as a new hike in National Insurance.

One veteran Tory MP said being Chancellor is often a poisoned chalice for potential leaders, but that Sunak could turn that on its head.

“But he could do with a leadership contest sooner rather than later,” they added. “His stock won’t ever be higher.”

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