Rishi Sunak has said he “definitely” does not want to be prime minister, having seen Boris Johnson deal with the job.
Speaking at an InHouse communications fringe event during the Conservatives’ virtual conference, the chancellor said his role was “hard enough” and dismissed suggestions he wants to replace the PM.
Sunak has been widely tipped as the frontrunner to take over from Johnson, whose performance during the coronavirus pandemic has worried Tory backbenchers amid falling poll ratings.
But the chancellor praised Johnson’s response, claiming that “on the big calls” the PM “got it right”, despite the UK suffering more than 40,000 deaths – one of the worst rates in the world.
When asked about leadership speculation, and whether he wanted to be prime minister, Sunak replied: “No, definitely not – seeing what the prime minister has to deal with, this is a job hard enough for me to do.
“I think we are very fortunate. He and I personally are close.
“We have a close personal friendship and that spreads through the teams, where there is an enormous amount of mutual trust between our teams.”
Sunak also claimed a decade of austerity had helped the government deal with the huge economic impact of coronavirus.
The chancellor said the divisive policy pursued by David Cameron was “absolutely the right thing to do” in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and meant the government was in a good position to respond to Covid-19.
Having warned in his speech of “hard choices everywhere” to balance the public finances in the medium-term following huge spending on schemes like furlough, Sunak was asked whether he thought austerity was a “dirty word”.
He replied: ”I feel it was absolutely the right thing to do to get what was an unsustainable borrowing situation under control and I very much support what the government at the time did.
“It’s only because of those difficult decisions that had been made over the past decade that we entered this crisis in a position where I was able to respond at the scale we have.
“If we’d come into this crisis already borrowing lots, that would have been much more difficult and would mean the long-term was much worse.
“But going forward, both in our manifesto and in the comments the prime minister and I have made, what we are going to do is prioritise investment in public services – that’s something that people elected us to do, I think that’s what the country wants and expects at this moment in time, so that’s what we’ll do.”
Earlier in his keynote speech, Sunak also made a point of praising Johnson’s much-criticised response to the pandemic.
“I’ve seen up close the burden the prime minister carries,” he said.
“We all know he has an ability to connect with people in a way few politicians manage.
“It is a special and rare quality.
“But what the commentators don’t see, the thing I see, is the concern and care he feels, every day, for the wellbeing of the people of our country.
“Yes, it’s been difficult, challenges are part of the job. But on the big calls, in the big moments, Boris Johnson has got it right and we need that leadership.”
Labour criticised Sunak for failing to set out any extra measures to support the ailing economy through the expected next six months of Covid restrictions.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said: “The chancellor just spoke for 10 minutes, but he had nothing new to say.
“No new targeted support for millions facing the furlough cliff edge. Nothing new for the self-employed. Nothing for those excluded so far.
“He just blew his chance to get a grip on Britain’s jobs crisis.”