Rishi Sunak has finally been tripped up. ‘He got away with it for a while,’ says a Minister.
‘He’d set out a plan. Then go away. Then have to come back a couple of weeks later and set out another plan.
‘At first it looked like he was being flexible. But now people are starting to say, ‘Come on, Rishi, you could have seen this coming. Why don’t you get out ahead on some of this stuff?’ ‘
To understand why Sunak has come a cropper, it’s necessary to appreciate the lonely battle he has been fighting within the heart of Government. Among the Cabinet big beasts, he has been the only one to take a strong, clear stand against a new lockdown
Until recently, Sunak was the Tory Party’s Golden Boy. Colleagues talked enviously of being able to ‘swerve it like Sunak’. Whatever the coronavirus crisis threw his way, the Chancellor deftly navigated around it.
But last week his deft touch deserted him. Ankle-tapped by Andy Burnham over the Manchester lockdown, thrown off balance by Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds for his belated U-turn on Tier 2 support, he was finally and unceremoniously upended by footballer Marcus Rashford and his free-school-meals campaign.
‘It was blindingly obvious he was going to have to move over business support,’ said one normally loyal backbencher.
‘It was ludicrous to think we could hold the line. It clearly needed correcting.’
To understand why Sunak has come a cropper, it’s necessary to appreciate the lonely battle he has been fighting within the heart of Government.
Michael Gove has aligned himself with Matt Hancock in demanding ever tougher measures to head off a Covid second wave. Boris has been sympathetic to their call. So the Chancellor took it upon himself to try to hold the line in defence of jobs and business
Among the Cabinet big beasts, he has been the only one to take a strong, clear stand against a new lockdown. Michael Gove has aligned himself with Matt Hancock in demanding ever tougher measures to head off a Covid second wave. Boris has been sympathetic to their call.
So the Chancellor took it upon himself to try to hold the line in defence of jobs and business.
‘A fortnight ago, he was going round telling everyone who would listen that he’d oppose further major restrictions,’ a Cabinet Minister reveals.
‘He literally said, ‘I’m not paying for another lockdown.’ ‘
The result was the Treasury and No 10 getting locked in a game of Covid-chicken.
Sunak was effectively telling Boris: ‘If you want to lock down again you can, but I’m not finding any more money to fund it.’
But last week Boris finally called his bluff. ‘Boris basically said, ‘We’re moving ahead with Tier 2 and Tier 3,’ ‘ reports another Minister.
‘If you don’t find the cash to support business, fine. But you’re the Chancellor, and that will be on you.’ ‘
The result was a dramatic climb-down over support for struggling Tier 2 areas. But one that came too late to avoid major damage to the Government’s attempts to pitch itself as the champion of ‘Red Wall’ Britain.
‘We were trying to explain to Boris that we’d been in Tier 2 for months and we needed help for that,’ said a source close to the frantic negotiations over the Manchester lockdown, ‘and Ed Lister [Boris’s chief of staff] kept saying, ‘We can’t go any further. The Treasury won’t let us.’ ‘
To Sunak’s critics, this U-turn was inevitable. ‘Everyone’s been raving about Dishy Rishi,’ says an ally of Dodds, ‘but he’s always been behind the curve. In fact, he’s so far behind he hasn’t even entered it yet.’
Sunak was effectively telling Boris: ‘If you want to lock down again you can, but I’m not finding any more money to fund it.’ But last week Boris finally called his bluff. ‘Boris basically said, ‘We’re moving ahead with Tier 2 and Tier 3,’ ‘ reports another Minister
But Sunak’s defenders insist his political vision remains sharper than many of those around him, including his own Prime Minister. They believe No 10 has become Covid-blind, unable to appreciate the full enormity of the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the public finances.
‘At the moment, he seems to be the only person in Government who’s keeping an eye on what’s going in and out of the till,’ says a supporter.
There is also a growing feeling among Sunak’s team that Boris’s horizons have become dangerously narrowed.
Rumours continue to circulate in Westminster that having concluded the Brexit negotiations, leading Britain out of the second wave will be the PM’s final political act.
And rebalancing the crimson-saturated Covid financial books will be left to his successor.
‘I think Rishi’s starting to realise he’s going to have to be the bad cop when it comes to the finances for a long time,’ says a Minister.
Sunak has one other major concern. Although Boris has publicly set himself against Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown, the political pressure within Government to do something ‘to save Christmas’ is growing. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are effectively under full lockdown. Seven million people in England are now under Tier 3 incarceration. Many millions more are under Tier 2, or being rolled up into it every week.
The fear within the Treasury is that England will enter full lockdown by stealth. Or that a circuit-breaker will be introduced and repackaged as a ‘reset’ designed to save Christmas for an exhausted and grateful nation.
But however it is rationalised, this has been a damaging week for the Chancellor and his Government.
The attempt to force Greater Manchester into lockdown against its will was an unnecessary own goal. ‘We were trying to avoid handing a win to Andy Burnham,’ says a frustrated Minister.
‘But for the sake of five million quid, all we did was paint him as a hero who was fighting for his people and his region.’
Even more disastrous was the impression that Ministers had chosen to prioritise support for London and the South over the North of England.
‘This isn’t an anti-London thing,’ said a spokesman for Burnham, ‘but we were in Tier 2 lockdown for months and we weren’t given support. Then London goes into Tier 2, and the Government suddenly comes up with the cash.’
But the worst mistake surrounded the tin-eared decision to oppose additional support for Marcus Rashford’s school-meals crusade.
The Government has been spending staggering amounts of public money to support people through the Covid nightmare.
But the impression has now been planted in the minds of the public that Boris and Rishi Sunak have been snatching food from the mouths of starving children with the same alacrity that Margaret Thatcher once snatched away their milk.
‘We’ve somehow got ourselves into a situation where people think we’ve been cutting school meals from the poorest kids,’ said a Minister.
The attempt to force Greater Manchester into lockdown against its will was an unnecessary own goal. ‘We were trying to avoid handing a win to Andy Burnham,’ says a frustrated Minister
‘I actually think there are better ways to provide support. But we knew this was coming. And Rishi should have been out there making the case.’
What’s really worrying Sunak’s colleagues is that the issue of school meals is just the start of what could be a series of explosive spending decisions.
‘People think this is bad,’ says one, ‘but in the spring we’re going to have to take the decision on what to do about the £20 welfare benefit uplift. And at the moment Rishi wants to axe it. That’s going to make school dinners look like a sideshow.’
Rishi Sunak has not become a bad politician overnight. But his blunders last week have hit the morale of his colleagues, many of whom had come to rely on his sure political touch.
‘People are very down this week,’ said one backbencher. ‘They’re just hoping there’s so much going on that everyone will forget about all this soon.’
They may well forget about it. But for that to happen, the Government’s Golden Boy is going to have to rediscover his golden touch.