On 16 April 2020, Rishi Sunak had a 43 percent positive approval rating, with only 9 percent of the country saying that he was doing a bad job. Fast forward two years, and ‘the people’s chancellor’ has well and truly lost the people. Recent revelations that Sunak held a US Green Card while chancellor, inaction on the cost of living crisis, and the issuing of a fine for attending a party at Downing Street during the December 2020 lockdown, has led to speculation that he may resign.
Sunak’s star has not fallen suddenly, however. Had the chancellor played his cards differently, he would be more secure in Number 11, and might even have had the chance of replacing his next-door neighbour. What actually happened is a very different story.
Sunak was granted the greatest gifts any politician could ask for: high office, historic popularity, and an unpopular and aimless prime minister he could easily influence from behind the scenes. But time after time he wasted his political capital, and squandered the advantage he had been given.
Conservative bridges burned
Even while Sunak enjoyed national adulation, he managed to successfully alienate a great deal of his own party. Sunak faced a clear political rift with northern MPs when he ‘turned off the tap’ on the levelling up agenda, with backbench firebrands like Jake Berry finding him an easy punching bag to distance themselves from the government’s failures.
Similarly, Sunak’s position as a standard-bearer against lockdowns back in the autumn of 2020 resulted in highly publicised rifts between himself and then members of the cabinet like Michael Gove and Matt Hancock.
While Sunak’s natural ideological base may have been with low-tax small state Conservatives, even there he has struggled. Policies like the national insurance increase have resulted in a backlash from grandees like Theresa May, David Davis, and Chris Grayling.
In short, this meant that there is no group within the Conservative Party with any strong loyalty to Sunak. Although Boris Johnson was in a similar position in advance of his own leadership bid, MPs rallied behind him because he was a winner. Which brings us to how Sunak lost his main asset, his popularity.
Thatcherite instincts laid bare
The fundamental issue of Sunak’s popularity was that it was based on a policy instinct that he was ideologically opposed to. Back in October 2020, Yorkshire Bylines covered Sunak’s mainstream Conservative views on issues like hunting, Brexit, and most notably universal credit. Unprecedented spending on furlough or temporarily ending homelessness were never going to sit well with him, and his fiscally conservative stance became clear in a number of areas.
It was widely reported that it was Sunak’s inflexible ideology that landed the government in hot water with votes, after he rejected calls to make permanent the universal credit uplift and extend free school meals. Sunak often became the focus of the outrage against these policies, and high-profile backlashes included being barred from a pub in his constituency, and six former work and pension secretaries writing to him to urge him to make the universal credit uplift permanent.
This has all laid the groundwork for Sunak’s leadership ambitions to be seriously diminished. But plenty of mediocre politicians can remain in cabinet, provided they remain loyal. It was Sunak’s behaviour during Partygate that not only led to Conservative MPs losing faith in him, but for his job to come on the line.
Ultimately, while Partygate may yet sink Johnson’s premiership, it is Sunak who has been most impacted up until now. While the chancellor was still broadly seen as the favourite to succeed Johnson, consistently outperforming leadership contenders in red wall seats, his actions as the scandal broke both furthered the public disillusionment with him, and persuaded MPs that he lacked the political skill to be an effective prime minister.
First, it was always going to be impossible for Sunak to escape unscathed from Partygate. As Johnson’s neighbour, any plausible deniability that he did not know what was going on was nigh-impossible.
What’s more, Sunak sat on the fence between die-hard loyalty and stabbing Johnson in the front, retreating to Devon to escape questions on Johnson. His response to a reporter typified his behaviour in this period. When asked if Johnson should resign, he replied:
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. The ministerial code is clear on these matters.”
Such a comment revealed the true nature of Sunak. By both stating that Johnson should resign (if he broke the ministerial code, which was the overwhelmingly likely scenario), but by not actually calling for this, he revealed himself as a tight-rope walker, a man whose political instinct was to not offend, and not commit.
Superman Sunak’s strength became his kryptonite
Originally, this had been Sunak’s strength. He had been the relatable chancellor, who wore grey hoodies and served at Wagamama’s. After years of political turbulence, the British people were delighted by a somewhat bland but competent and kind public servant.
However, in a time of national outrage, when Conservative MPs were openly calling for their leader to resign, leadership was called for. It was a moment that Sunak misjudged catastrophically, and one which may well have cost him his career.
Since then, misjudged photo-ops of the chancellor failing to use a contactless card reader have shown Sunak as out of touch. At the same time, his ‘loan-not-loan’ to deal with the cost-of-living crisis has led to him being dubbed ‘the Klarna chancellor’, alongside a continuous slide in approval ratings. Even before the issues around Akshata Murty’s taxes came into the picture, Conservative MPs viewed him as naïve and unserious.
Had Sunak made his move in January, the six-week leadership contest would be well in the past now, as he weathers the present scandals. Of course, this not to say he held Johnson’s fate in his hands. But he undeniably missed his moment, and he would have been in a very different position to face the war in Ukraine, cost-of-living crisis, and Partygate fines.
Instead, Sunak’s future as chancellor is under question. While there seems to be little appetite among Conservative ranks to dethrone Johnson, a new chancellor may be just the personnel change needed to show a direction in leadership. Sunak’s squandered moment should be studied for years to come; not as a flash in the pan, but as a two-year arson of a career.