Rishi Sunak is an unwelcome reminder to Boris Johnson of his political mortality

Andrew Rawnsley
Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

Is there room at the top of Conservative politics for two people known by their first names? In the immediate aftermath of their election victory, this government was the “Boris show”. It was all about the Tory hero who had won their best parliamentary majority since the mid-1980s. Now it is the “Boris & Rishi show”. The prime minister has to share the limelight with the much younger guy he accelerated into the chancellorship just four months ago. Sitting on the Commons frontbench while the golden boy had his latest day in the sun, the prime minister’s leg jiggled uncontrollably as he chuntered “absolutely right”.

He has to live with it for the moment because Rishi Sunak is the one senior minister whom Tory MPs regard as unsackable. The chancellor is the only member of an otherwise floundering government who is widely judged to have had a good coronavirus crisis. “There’s no doubt about it,” says one former cabinet minister, “Boris’s star is falling and Rishi’s star is rising.” His approval ratings easily best the prime minister and anyone else in the cabinet. The bookies and a lot of MPs have him as their favourite to be the next Tory leader.

Brand Boris has been around for an extremely long time. As a fame-hungry journalist, TV panel show performer and London mayor before he became prime minister, he has been a high-profile feature of British public life for more than 30 years. That familiarity has bred affection in some and contempt in many others. Brand Rishi is a fast new fashion. Only just turned 40, he was the most junior minister at the department of local government less than a year ago. He has risen so rapidly that he has yet to make many enemies among other politicians and the public have decided they like him without really knowing all that much about him.

His sleekness, the ready smile and an aura of polished competence make a striking contrast with the crumpled, jowly and often scowly prime minister. Mr Johnson’s rhetorical defaults are jokiness, personal abuse, boosterism and bluster. His chancellor is an elegant phrase-maker. “Although hardship lies ahead, no one will be left without hope” has an echo of Churchill without being too obvious about it. “It is a plan to turn our national recovery into millions of stories of personal renewal.” This may turn out to be guff, but it is classy guff.

Officialdom knows who it prefers. Senior civil servants shudder at what one calls the “utter dysfunctionality” of the regime at Number 10. Mr Sunak is the kind of chancellor that Treasury officials admire because he understands data, isn’t afraid of making decisions, and can do the big picture as well as the detail.

Number 10 gets itself into endless scrapes and scraps, as when the prime minister recently insulted care home workers without probably intending to. The Sunak style is to sound reasonable and fair-minded in order to make friends and influence people. He has called trade unions “social partners” and some of their leaders have spoken of him with reciprocal warmth. He did not bridle when opposition MPs suggested that his Kickstart programme to help the young unemployed looked awfully similar to the Future Jobs Fund introduced after the financial crisis by the last Labour government. He gracefully acknowledged that he had learned from it. He has produced four budgets in all but name during the crisis – with the real one still to come in the autumn. Though each has attracted criticism about specific measures, the reception has generally been highly positive. Labour MPs, who have contempt on tap for the prime minister, find it much harder to summon wrath towards the occupant of Number 11. After a decade of framing the argument against the Tories in anti-austerity terms, Labour is struggling to get traction on a Tory chancellor who claims to be “unencumbered by dogma” while spending vast sums and sounding concerned about social justice. One member of Labour’s economics team laments: “He’s eating our breakfast.”

His 'meal deal', offering half-price grub on the Treasury, is a short-term gimmick, but it was rewarded with celebratory tabloid headlines about 'Rishi’s Dishes'

The rise of Rishi is being lubricated by a personal marketing operation of a kind never before employed by a chancellor. The most recent measures were launched with slick social media propaganda featuring portrait pictures of him looking thoughtful or dynamic with his signature as the swish logo. They’ve been mocked for looking like ads for a skincare product or a range of aspirational menswear. Other ministers clock that they make anything intended to be popular with the public look not like the work of the government as a whole, but the solo effort of one munificent, celebrity-styled, quasi-presidential figure. His “meal deal”, offering half-price grub on the Treasury, is a short-term gimmick, but it was rewarded with celebratory tabloid headlines about “Rishi’s Dishes”. The operation to market Brand Rishi is not always perfect. There was a misstep when he posed for a photo accompanied by a posh coffee warmer that retails at just under £180. The former investment banker is usually more careful not to flaunt how very rich he is.

“It’s not hard to be a popular chancellor when you are shelling out loads of money,” sniffs one senior Tory. “Let’s see how popular he is in 12 months’ time.” The real test of his mettle will come when unemployment is soaring, market tolerance for state borrowing hits its limit and he has to claw back some money to pay the bills. The public may not like him so much then. That will also be the time when we discover whether support for him among Tory MPs is lastingly deep or just a passing fad.

The fiscal hawks on the Tory benches are already becoming vocally restive. Sir Edward Leigh intervened during last week’s statement: “Will this young, vigorous chancellor not be too cruel to an old Thatcherite for making this deeply unfashionable point? There are no good, long-term subsidised jobs.” The Tories will soon face a significant ideological choice. Is the foreseeable future one of high spending and bigger and more active government? Or will they switch back to their atavistic impulse to shrink the state? Mr Sunak, an enthusiastic subscriber to most of the tenets of Thatcherism before the crisis, has yet to show where he truly stands.

And is he really as bold as his cheerleaders proclaim? The job retention scheme was certainly novel for a Conservative government, but it followed the pattern of what was happening in many other countries. His attempts to stimulate consumer demand – selected VAT reductions and a stamp duty cut – are not radical. When so many people, and so many of them young, depend for their livelihoods on leisure and hospitality, he is understandably desperate to raise the blood sugar levels of these sectors. But is this all that Britain aspires to be? A nation of shoppers and drinkers? Missing so far is evidence that he has the will or the imagination to rethink an economy so precariously dependent on “social consumption” and reorient it towards more investment, higher skills, greater resilience, innovation and sustainability. For all his claims to be designing a “green recovery”, the sums allocated to decarbonisation are very small in comparison with what is needed to address the climate emergency and what others are doing.

Ministers are beginning to notice, with a mixture of admiration and resentment, that the chancellor is highly adept at presenting himself as a source of positive news but much less visible when the government comes under fire. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has borne the brunt of attacks on the Tories for years of underfunding of the health service. The prime minister took most of the flak for the initial refusal to extend free school meals over the summer. The keeper of the cheque book at the Treasury managed to shimmy away from these furores.

Envy is a powerful driver of political behaviour. Boris Johnson would not be human – he certainly would not be Boris Johnson – if he were entirely relaxed about the sensational ascent of the younger man next door. One senior Tory remarks: “Boris is thinking, ‘I made him. He owes me. He had better not step out of line’.” It may suit the longer-term interests of the Conservative party to build up Brand Rishi as an alternative proposition for the voters if Brand Boris is too stale and tarnished when the next election is on the horizon. The current tenant of Number 10 will take a different view. No prime minister likes to be reminded of their mortality. They invariably grow paranoid about any colleague who is talked up as an heir apparent. While he has little choice but to pretend he’s unbothered for now, Boris Johnson will not forever tolerate being eclipsed by his chancellor.

•Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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