Sajid Javid turns his back on Rishi Sunak — ‘backstabbing chameleon’ or independent thinker?

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 (ES composite)
(ES composite)

It is both shocking and brilliantly predictable: how quickly loyalties can fall by the wayside when jobs are at stake.

Less than a fortnight ago, Rishi Sunak was the favourite to win the race for Number Ten, with insiders nicknaming the contest “Rishi vs the rest” as ratings showed him well ahead of his rival four leadership candidates. Now, just days later, the former Chancellor has crashed into second place, with polls of party members putting rival Liz Truss 34 percentage points ahead.

Former leadership contenders Penny Mourdaunt and Tom Tugendhat are among key Tories to back Truss in recent days, but even the bookies couldn’t have seen the Foreign Secretary’s latest backer coming. Sajid Javid, Sunak’s longstanding political ally, mentor and “good friend”, who last night said he was backing Truss because Sunak’s plans would see Britain “sleepwalking into a high-tax, low-growth” economy and risked a “loss of global influence and power”.

So what went wrong? Javid and Sunak seemingly had a long history of allyship since Sunak was mentored by Javid and succeeded him as Chancellor in February 2020. They resigned within minutes of each other this time last month, sparking a stream of cabinet resignations, and though the so-called coup was supposedly not coordinated, it was seen as the latest in a long history of political and personal alignments over the years. Both had similar backgrounds, shared passions for fiscal conservatism and Star Wars, and decided their lost faith in Boris Johnson was strong enough to walk out.

But apparently that wasn’t enough for Javid to remain loyal and back his former protégé. Did he simply succumb to Truss’ charms like so many of his colleagues? Was his backing of Truss a tactical move to get a job in her government? Or has something more serious taken place between him and Sunak to cause this political rift?

From their shared humble beginnings to recent bickers over spending, here’s how the Rishi/Saj rift unfolded.

 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

A shared love of Thatcher (and Star Wars)

Commentators have called Sunak and Javid “ideological soulmates” and “political allies” who “share more than a love of star wars”, and the pair have confirmed their close relationship several times themselves over the years.

“Wishing my good friend @RishiSunak all the very best. One of the most capable ministers I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” Javid tweeted in February 2020 as Sunak was announced as Britain’s new Chancellor.

The following month, Sunak returned the compliment, calling Javid a “good friend and mentor”. “He was my first boss actually... Sajid and I have been in touch so yes, he has always given me advice,” adding that the advice was “more on the personal side than on the policies side,” he said in an interview with Sky News.

“He told me to try and find some time for my family, which I must say over the past few weeks I have not managed to deliver on but hopefully soon.”

Javid might be 10 years Sunak’s senior but they have a lot in common. Both were born to parents who moved to the UK from the far east - Rochdale-born Javid was the son of a bus conductor who arrived in Britain from Pakistan with £5 to his name, while Sunak was born to Indian parents who moved to the UK from East Africa. His father was a GP and his mother was a pharmacist.

While Javid is proud to have attended state school, Sunak followed a more common schooling route of top politicians and studied at one of Britain’s top public schools, Winchester College. Both men then worked in investment banking before moving into politics and have long been seen as part of the Thatcherite wing of the party and fiscal conservatives who supported low tax and opposed Johnson’s spendthrift tendencies. They also aligned on Covid restrictions, both leaning towards opening up over locking the country down when the virus reared its head again last year.

On a personal level, they also share a proud (and very public) love of Star Wars, with Sunak calling Javid a Jedi Master and Javid tweeting “The Force is strong in young Sunak” when Sunak took over from him as Chancellor.

Just over a year before, Sunak tweeted a pic of them at the cinema after a viewing of The Rise of Skywalker, captioning it: “Great night out with the boss - Jedi Master”.

Spending wars

The pair’s relationship hasn’t all been sunshine and light sabers. The first time Sunak and Javid appeared to be at loggerheads was over spending in February, when then-Health Secretary Javid demanded as much as £5bn to pay for the long-term cost of Covid testing. Sunak disagreed - he’d just signed off a National Insurance rise to fund more health spending, so told Javid he’d have to find the money within his existing budget. Javid dropped his demand to £3bn, then to £1.8bn, but ended up walking away without a single pound.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The clash was widely considered the pair’s first major political clash - some noted that Sunak the pupil had quickly become the master, though others argued that the argument was a classic case of Treasury versus Department of Health rather than something more personal.

Perhaps those sceptics were wrong and the pair were on a collision course all along. Now, once again it’s spending that’s said to be at the heart of Javid’s backing of Truss, with the former Health Secretary warning that Sunak’s economic plans would cause Britain to “[sleepwalk] into a high-tax, low-growth” economy. He added that Sunak’s refusal to lower taxes risked the country becoming a “middle-income economy”, warning that while there were “no risk-free options in government”, Truss had the “willingness to challenge the status quo”.

Challenged about his decision to back Ms Truss, he said he believed she was best placed to reunite the party, has a better plan on the economy and is the best candidate to beat Labour at the next general election. But he did warn that whoever becomes the next Prime Minister faced an “unenviable” series of challenges when they eventually enter No10 on September 6.

 (Rex Features)
(Rex Features)

Later, on LBC, he added: “Whether it’s the economy, cost of living or internationally, if you look at Russia and China, for example. And so it’s about picking the right leader and we’ve got two great credible candidates. But we have to make a choice and for me and I think for many people now the clear choice is Liz Truss.”

A backstabbing chameleon or an independent thinker doing the right thing?

To many, Javid’s swipe at his former protégé came suddenly. It was only a few weeks ago the two were aligned in their lack of support for Boris Johnson, so were there any other clues of the rift that’s now opened between them?

When both men announced their running in the leadership race last month, Javid did make a quip about not having a “slick video and logo ready to go” like Sunak, which was seen as a joke at the time. Was it pointing to a more serious political breakup between them after all?

Critics on Twitter have been quick to call Javid a “backstabber”, a “snake” and a “chamelon-like figure” who had been “hanging back to see popular opinion” before casting his vote and is “obviously desperate to get a decent job” in Truss’ government. Only in April, he was defending Sunak’s controversial planned National Insurance hike, saying it was “right” and “fair”. Should Truss be wary of him stabbing her in the back at a later date too?

It was only last summer that commentators asked “how long will their friendship last?”, saying Sunak and Javid’s close working relationship would likely be tested in months or years to come. As the race for the new PM nears its close and becomes more bruising by the second, perhaps that test has finally come.

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