Only a matter of weeks ago, Rishi Sunak was seen as the prime minister in waiting. Now friends of the Chancellor are discussing whether he will even stand at the next general election.
If Boris Johnson manages to survive the climax of the police’s “partygate” investigation, Mr Sunak’s allies fear he will be reshuffled out of the Treasury and into a political wilderness from which he would have no intention of returning.
“He isn’t the sort of person who would stay in Parliament for another 10 years waiting for his chance to come around again,” said one well-placed source. “If it became apparent he wasn’t going to be prime minister, he would just go.”
It is an open secret that Mr Sunak is attracted to the idea of a future life in California, a place he reportedly referred to as “home” during a recent official visit there, and the expectation among friends is that if he feels his shot at the top job has gone, he will move his family to Santa Monica, where they have a £5.5 million seafront penthouse, and pursue a career in Silicon Valley.
Allies concede the plan for a future life in America is “the only possible explanation” for why he kept his US green card - at considerable personal expense - until he was finally advised to relinquish it last October.
Mr Sunak has been privately discussing the possibility of having to leave Number 11 for more than a year. In his discussions with aides and friends, he has always assumed his next door neighbour Mr Johnson would be the cause of his demise, though it was policy disagreements, rather than his family finances, that were seen as the danger.
Sources close to the Chancellor briefed Sunday newspapers that Mr Sunak had considered quitting the Cabinet last week as his wife’s finances dominated the headlines.
There remains the possibility that Mr Sunak, whose wife and children moved out of Downing Street to the family’s four-storey mews house in Kensington over the weekend, could resign in the coming days if more revelations appear, but publicly, at least, the immediate plan is to fight on.
Kit Malthouse, the Home Office minister, said on Sunday that as MP for Richmond, Mr Sunak was “an honorary Yorkshireman” and quoted a local adage that: “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
A Treasury source said Mr Sunak would carry on in his job and was not thinking of leaving Parliament at the next election. The source said: "He is not considering quitting. Above all, Rishi is a dedicated constituency MP."
There will be some encouragement for Mr Sunak in the fact that voters appear to have been far less troubled by his family’s tax and residency than they were by “partygate”. One Red Wall Tory MP who had hundreds of angry emails about the Downing Street parties said: “I have only had one email about the Sunaks. It doesn’t seem that voters are as bothered by this as it doesn’t directly affect them, and it’s quite complicated stuff compared with, say, people partying in No10 when the country is in lockdown.”
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Mr Sunak’s personal ratings, however, have plunged, particularly with Tory members, who have the final say in leadership contests. From the heady days of the furlough scheme, when Mr Sunak had a net favourability rating of almost plus 50, he is now on minus 29, making him less popular than Sir Keir Starmer.
His stock was already on the wane after his Spring Statement, when he resisted pressure from No10 to postpone the National Insurance rise and was criticised from all sides for doing too little.
Rows over Mr Johnson’s costly proposals for investment in nuclear energy went on for so long that the release of the Government’s energy strategy was repeatedly delayed. Those on the Right of the Tory party had long had their doubts about him as a tax-raising Chancellor.
And it will be Mr Johnson, not the Tory grassroots, who decides Mr Sunak’s fate. Mr Johnson has no desire for tall poppies in his Cabinet, and certainly not ones who are lauded as his successor. Friends of the Prime Minister believe it is more likely than not that Mr Sunak, who was at times equivocal in his support of Mr Johnson during the “partygate” row, will be demoted in a summer reshuffle.
It helps explain why Sunak loyalists have pointed the finger at Number 10 when it comes to identifying a culprit for the leaks of the Chancellor’s personal affairs.
Mr Sunak has placed a high-stakes bet by ordering a leak inquiry: if it identifies a senior member of Mr Johnson’s staff as the leaker, he may feel emboldened to mount a leadership challenge, but it could also blow up in his face if, for instance, it turned out that one of his own staff was stabbing him in the back.
His decision to ask Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister's independent adviser on standards, to review his personal arrangements is another gamble. Mr Sunak insists that he followed the advice of his permanent secretaries at all times on what he should and should not publicly declare, but Lord Geidt could rule that Mr Sunak should have been more transparent, which would leave the Chancellor in a difficult position.
Mr Sunak is understood to have gone through his and his wife’s finances when he first became a minister in 2018 with Helen MacNamara, the head of propriety and ethics, including their green cards and his wife’s non-dom status, and was given the all-clear.
Many Tory backbenchers believe Mr Sunak could be embarrassed if he did try to run for leader.
One said: “Everything that has happened in the past week shows his lack of political awareness.
“I find it genuinely astonishing that he would have kept a green card and that they thought they could get away with his wife avoiding UK taxes.
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“It may have all been within the rules, but it casts a big shadow over any suggestion that he has got the political wherewithal to hold the highest office. It also shows that if he was serious about becoming prime minister he should have had a better team around him.”
Some backbenchers and ministers, particularly those who have been through the misery of life on the opposition benches, believe Mr Sunak was promoted too quickly: having been an MP for less than seven years, he is the most inexperienced chancellor in living memory.
Ministerial advisers who have locked horns with the Chancellor’s team have taken delight in his difficulties, describing him and his wife as “Rishi Notax and Akshata Murky” and swapping laughter emojis on WhatsApp groups.
One man who clearly believes a vacancy is about to pop up is Sajid Javid. The Health Secretary and former chancellor cleared his own skeletons out of the closet at the weekend by confessing to being non-domiciled for six years when he was working in finance. In doing so, he has taken the sting out of any investigation into his own finances that would inevitably follow if he was asked to return to the Treasury in a summer reshuffle or become foreign secretary (a job he covets) or even, perhaps, have another stab at the leadership himself.
Asked recently if he would like to be prime minister “if the ball came loose at the back of the scrum” - as Mr Johnson once described his own leadership ambitions - Mr Sunak said he was “just trying to stay at the crease and keep in place and not get out”.
After the events of the past week, it appears Mr Sunak might have clumsily knocked off his own bails.