Analysis: Is Rishi Sunak At Risk Of Becoming The Tory David Miliband?

The Chancellor has attempted to distance himself from Boris Johnson's ongoing woes.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
Gareth Fuller via PA Wire/PA Images

As denials go, this one was at the unconvincing end of the spectrum.

Asked on a hospital visit with Rishi Sunak if he ever worries that his next door neighbour might be after his job, Boris Johnson said: “I think that what we’re doing is working together across the whole of Government to fix the Covid backlogs which, believe me, is a massive priority for us, for everybody in the country.”

Having failed to get a straight answer, the reporter had another crack, this time asking the PM whether he had any doubts about the Chancellor’s loyalty.

“Absolutely not,” he insisted. What else could he say, after all?

Nevertheless, it did nothing to allay the feverish Westminster speculation that relations between 10 and 11 Downing Street are at an all-time low.

The most recent evidence is the delay to the government’s strategy on how it plans to clear the enormous NHS backlog caused by the pandemic. It had been to be announced today, but has been delayed after the Treasury reportedly refused to sign off on the associated price tag.

This is, of course, strenuously denied by No. 10, who pointed to a joint-hospital visit by Johnson and Sunak in Kent today as proof that relations between the pair remain strong.

But that is contradicted somewhat by the evidence of recent days, when the Chancellor has appeared to be doing all be can to distance himself from the PM.

At a press conference last Thursday, he became the first Cabinet minister to publicly criticise Johnson over the Jimmy Savile row.

He then followed that up with an article in The Sun in which he appeared to make a thinly-veiled leadership pitch, while also taking a swing at Johnson over the partygate affair.

“We have always been the party of sound money — we will always continue to be on my watch — and that is the only kind of party I am interested in,” Sunak wrote.

This apparent manoeuvring has not gone unnoticed among his fellow Tory MPs, many of whom believe it is now a matter of when, not if, the prime minister faces a vote of no confidence.

The question they are asking, however, is how long can Sunak wait before the economic storms approaching the UK make landfall and sweep away his hopes of succeeding Johnson as leader.

One senior Conservative MP told HuffPost UK: “He needs the vote of no confidence to happen soon, and before economic conditions deteriorate. He can’t get caught in no man’s land.”

A dozen Tories have publicly confirmed they have submitted no confidence letters. Although the true number is thought to be much higher, it’s still short of the 54 needed to trigger a vote.

Veteran Westminster-watchers feel like they have seen this movie before.

In 2008, David Miliband wrote an article in The Guardian on Labour’s future which was widely interpreted as a leadership challenge to Gordon Brown. The then prime minister’s aides brutally put down any rebellion and Miliband’s tilt at the top job was over.

Although he challenged for the leadership when Brown quit in 2010, he lost to his brother Ed and left British politics altogether in 2013.

“The Rishi ditherer stuff is really catching on,” said one insider. “His press conference last week was the equivalent of David Miliband’s Guardian article.”

That may be over-egging it slightly. But it’s undeniable that the conditions may never be better for Sunak to make his tilt for the top job. The question remains, however, whether - unlike Miliband - he has the nerve to match his undoubted ambition.


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