When Boris Johnson catapulted a young upstart from Treasury minister to Chancellor of the Exchequer, he likely envisaged Rishi Sunak would be pliable and amenable to his insatiable desire for spending rather than the thin-skinned thorn in his side.
Sunak already had one foot out of the door last week, when his wife’s non-domicile tax status came to light. Now, with both him and the Prime Minister being slapped with fixed penalty notices for breaking lockdown laws, the Chancellor once criticised for being so squeaky clean it seemed he’d bathed in a perfume labelled “Headboy, can do no wrong” will be, as goes the saying, “considering his position”.
Unlike Johnson, Sunak is terrible with criticism. Like a puppy, he loves to be loved. Following his £9bn package to try and help households through the cost-of-living crisis and his Spring Statement the Chancellor was noticeably shirty with journalists suggesting he could have gone further to help the most vulnerable Britons.
He was labelled Dishi Rishi during the pandemic and shot to popularity and pop-culture with such spectacular aplomb the Prime Minister thought he had created a monster who might eventually surpass him. Little did he know it would be the Chancellor’s sensitivity that put him in the most perilous position.
If Sunak wants to go or makes any moves to follow his wife and children – who moved out of their Downing Street flat to their West London home over the weekend- it puts Johnson in an untenable position. You cannot have a Chancellor who says my behaviour was below the standards expected of me and a Prime Minister who justifies the same – if not more egregious -rule breaking.
There will be those within the Conservatives who have faith in Johnson’s ability to roll through yet another crisis with a half-hearted apology and an “earnest wish” to get back to focussing on the “people’s priorities”.
Indeed, yesterday, even some of the Prime Minister’s fiercest critics were concerned at the uncertainty the country might be thrown into if Johnson was cleared out of Downing Street.
The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, who caused quite a stir when he called for the PM to go earlier this year, warned a change in leadership now would “destabilise the UK”. Sir Roger Gale, a familiar critic of Boris Johnson’s, said there would be a moment of reckoning – but that now was not the time to “unseat” the Prime Minister.
In the throes of Partygate in January, Johnson was able to buy time – first with the Sue Gray report and then with the Met Police investigation. Time and timing is a valuable currency that enable Johnson to stay on long past the expiry date many branded him with.
But it has come back to bite him. The fines against him, his wife and his chancellor – not to mention dozens more within Downing Street – came just as energy prices went up; just as new stats revealed Britons were £700 poorer as a result of inflation; just as the country geared itself up for local elections and postal ballots were sent out; just as some MPs grew weary of their axe to grind and accepted the burden of Boris Johnson in exchange for his leadership in Ukraine. It came just as the Chancellor was already tarnished with accusations of questionable (albeit legal) tax affairs.
Many Tories will wait for someone else to break ranks. Even in such an astonishing situation, being first out the gate is never easy. With Sunak leadership hopes dashed, there is no obvious successor. This will put a pause on any pens ready to sign off a letter of no confidence.
But as Rishi Sunak looks at a political career in tatters, he may well figure it’s time to cut his losses and make a break for his home in California, where expensive hoodies go hand in hand with stained reputations.
In a sea of unknowns, one thing is clear: for once, at least, no one in Downing Street is partying tonight.