By Jack Horrigan
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a former journalist, has been reported to run his government like a newsroom. A more ignoble analogy may be that he runs it like a reality television programme. He himself is a caricature; the easily-hated Dominic Cummings was a natural villain; a boozy flouting of pandemic rules is a colourful plot point; the mass exodus of his aides, a fitting series finale. But one member of the Johnson government has managed to be taken seriously.
Rishi Sunak, the manicured Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been a Rorshach test for Britain’s voters. His background helps. His parents were first-generation immigrants; humble enough to establish his working-class bonafides, yet affluent enough to send him to Winchester College, one of the most elite boarding schools in the country. He studied business at Stanford before becoming a Goldman-Sachs banker – and amassed a grand fortune through business and marriage in the process. Rhetorically, he is a mild-mannered Brexiteer with a firm grasp on economic realities. He is notoriously reticent about his personal life. In short, he is a rather bland character in the saga of the Johnson government. Bland characters, however, make for excellent politicians. Mr Sunak has long been touted as an heir apparent for Mr Johnson. Should he be the next prime minister, it is worth scrutinizing his performance thus far – successes, and inevitably, his failures.
Mr Sunak’s accession to chancellor came with the opportune sacking of his predecessor Sajid Javid, who lost favour with Mr Johnson and his then-lieutenant Mr Cummings. Less opportune was the timing: Mr Sunak was named on 13 February, just a month before a tidal wave of coronavirus infections overtook the UK for the first time. The newly-minted chancellor was faced with a challenge even the most hardened technocrats struggled with. He performed, at least at first, admirably.
A fiscal conservative, Mr Sunak responded to the economic shock with uncharacteristic zeal. He proclaimed his priority was to preserve jobs, and he opened the taps of government stimulus to do so. His multifaceted job-saving campaign included a furlough scheme, new investments in developing sectors, and more – the budgets he has presented so far have been so expansive that it is difficult to believe they have come from a self-proclaimed Thatcherite. Mr Sunak himself seemed queasy when presenting the budget, noting that as a percentage of GDP, taxes are now at their highest point since the 1950s and the introduction of the post-war settlement. But Mr Sunak made a point not to apologise – even after criticism from members of his own party.
The chancellor has his share of flaws, however. His oft-mocked “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which saw the government partially subsidizing the meals of Britons who patronized restaurants during the height of the pandemic, was a failure. Not only did it have a middling impact on the hospitality sector, but it also facilitated a spike of Covid-19 infections.
Mr Sunak also seems to be on the verge of rediscovering austerity. To listen to his rhetoric, he has begun to turn off the faucet of government investment. The spending that buoyed the British economy during the roughest waves of the pandemic was made possible through a combination of tax hikes and borrowing. Mr Sunak is no longer as keen on borrowing as he once was, in light of rising interest rates – though there is some evidence he has not soured on it completely.
Some frugality may be justified to balance the books. Many of Mr Sunak’s more lofty spending schemes have even loftier price tags; a perennial deficit hawk, the chancellor has clipped away certain welfare programmes to make room for others. For instance, a rise in the national insurance rate, which will see students paying back their student loans quicker.
For most Britons, this seems an acceptable price to pay for a higher minimum wage, robust infrastructure investment, and more public sector jobs. Mr Sunak is the second-most popular politician in Britain, according to a YouGov poll. This may explain the degree of friction between him and his boss, Mr Johnson. In the summer, Mr Sunak urged the prime minister in a private letter to ease lockdown restrictions; the letter was correspondingly leaked to the press, and met with great support by the public. In response, Mr Johnson privately suggested demoting the chancellor to Secretary of State for Health – a conversation that was leaked in turn.
A young, competent, and popular deputy would not be a concern for a fortified prime minister. Mr Johnson is anything but. The prime minister – and many of his advisors – have emerged from the quagmire of “partygate” bloodied, but politically alive. Mr Johnson fears a stab in the back from an ambitious chancellor, and not without cause. Mr Sunak criticised Mr Johnson for hosting the party – despite the fact that Mr Sunak also attended – and has also condemned some of Mr Johnson’s more inflammatory comments towards Labour leader Keir Starmer. Some Tory backbenchers have even outright suggested Mr Sunak replace Mr Johnson – an offer Mr Sunak seemed a little too eager to refuse.
Mr Johnson has little to fear. The prime minister and chancellor have erected a mostly united front, and absent anymore partygate revelations, the time for a Conservative coup has come and gone. But even if Mr Sunak does not earn the top job through duplicity, there is little doubt that he will make a bid for it.
His window of opportunity may be closing. Mr Sunak owes much of his acclaim to his popular social spending programs. The public, after suffering through a decade of austerity, embraced the chancellor’s sudden exuberance. Certainly, there was blowback from the right wing of his party, but compared to the cacophony of his accolades, that criticism was a whisper. Should Mr Sunak desire, he could continue his lavish spending. Labour has proven a shambolic opposition, and Mr Johnson’s future is uncertain; should the Conservatives win the next election, it will likely not be with Mr Johnson at their head. The fresh-faced chancellor could ride to No. 10 on the laurels of his social programs. But this spending glut will not last. Mr Sunak’s self-proclaimed Thatcherism does not reek of opportunism. His frugality, left dormant over the pandemic, will be dusted off as the virus’s tide ebbs – and Mr Sunak’s thrift will be less alluring to voters than his emergency spending. When he returns to his small-state roots, or when he no longer has Mr Johnson’s heft to provide political cover, his star may begin to fade.
Rishi Sunak has had a rather speedy accession to No. 11. If the words of the pundits are to be believed, he will not have to wait too much longer before moving next door. The pandemic provided a fortunate crucible for Mr Sunak. He navigated the challenge adequately, won his share of glory, and emerged from lockdowns as a post-pandemic darling. It is unclear, however, that his popularity will survive scrutiny after the fog of the pandemic has lifted. Until then, he will likely continue to play his role faithfully – a bland character in a tumultuous show.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.