Ignore the hype, Rishi Sunak’s ascent is not assured


Buy Sunaks. The smart money is all on Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer. A man who has been in cabinet for only a year is widely regarded as the next premier and not necessarily in the dim, distant future. Sell Johnsons; sell Starmers. After another huge spending budget, the Rish is on a roll.

The theory holds that as times toughen, and the UK tires of Boris Johnson’s amiable bombast, the ruthless Conservatives will ditch the prime minister for Mr Sunak, the only minister to emerge from the pandemic with his reputation enhanced, rather than lose power to the opposition with its own managerial leader. 

You can see the appeal. The chancellor is a class act; empathetic, decisive, hard-working, good on detail and with a media team ferociously buffing up his brand. Ideologically he is in the right place for his party. A glance at his Instagram feed is enough to see eyes are already on the prize. One image shows him backstage at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, peering around the curtain, literally waiting in the wings. He has also learnt that Blairite skill of not needlessly making enemies, embodying his public school motto that “manners maketh man”. He has a touch of France’s Emmanuel Macron — but without the hauteur.

The logic is sound. But some perspective is needed. Roy Jenkins, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Portillo, David Miliband and George Osborne are just a few political heirs apparent who never clinched the top job. The list of former future prime ministers is almost as august as the roll of those who made it.

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The first cause for caution is that, barring ill-health, Mr Johnson is not going anywhere. For now, Mr Sunak is an asset, but Mr Johnson views his leadership through the prism of history. He will not lightly step aside until his greatness is assured. Ambitious chancellors are meat and drink to cunning leaders.

A second reason to pause is that chancellors do not claim the crown as often as one might imagine. In the past 75 years, only three out of 24 — Harold Macmillan, John Major and Gordon Brown — moved to Number 10 directly from the Treasury (a fourth, James Callaghan, also made it but only after two other jobs) and only Mr Brown can be said to have been a long-term favourite. 

There is a compelling reason for this. The fate of governments is inextricably entwined with management of the economy. Should the much-desired V-shape recovery arrive, Mr Sunak will be credited, but Mr Johnson will remain popular. If the downturn is severe, he is the one in charge of the finances. Mass unemployment is a grave risk. A dose of reality came within a day of his statement when retail chains announced thousands of job cuts. Mr Sunak has risen to the occasion, but it is easy to be popular when you are running a £350bn deficit. The hardest days are ahead. 

Mr Sunak has to find a way to restore public finances. Tax rises of £35-40bn are mooted within the next few years. He has time to devise some valuable reforms, but he should be under no illusion that voters will thank him for them. Fiscal probity, like chastity, tends to be admired only from afar.

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A swift Sunak ascension depends on Mr Johnson’s failing in a way that does not also hurt his chancellor. The longer the PM thrives, the more time for jealousies to fester and rivals to emerge. Mr Sunak’s status is a tribute to his talent but also an indictment of the weakness of the rest of the cabinet. Mr Johnson cannot allow that to continue. 

There are perils aplenty for Mr Johnson. A serious second wave of infections might shatter public faith. Though he argued strongly for easing the lockdown, MPs may forgive the chancellor for focusing on saving the economy. But a serious spike will also scupper recovery. A botched Brexit will hurt the government but Mr Sunak, though a Brexit enthusiast, is not handling negotiations. A final foreseeable and serious risk would be the shock of a vote for Scottish independence. (Though this would also wipe out more than 50 non-Tory MPs, steepening Labour’s already unenviable electoral task). But a shattered Union would also be a toxic inheritance.

While replacing Mr Johnson before the next election may be the most direct route to power for Mr Sunak, it necessitates taking over a failing government of which he has been a recognisable leader. This has worked before, but Mr Sunak would be a weakened premier. Labour’s electoral challenge is so great that he might hold on to power, but of those four former chancellors, only one (Macmillan) enjoyed success as premier. The others effectively led last gasp governments.

Events will dictate his timing, and Mr Sunak must move when the opportunity strikes but his best bet is to damp down the hype and steer clear of intrigue. The happiest path is to serve a few good years, move to another major post with his partnership at the top intact, and be Mr Johnson’s anointed heir after a second election victory. 

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None of this is to deny Mr Sunak’s deserved frontrunner status. He is a very strong bet. But those who wish to see a successful Sunak administration should ensure he keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the Treasury. A ratings slump bad enough to take down the prime minister is likely only to benefit the Labour party. For there is one other point worth remembering. In modern times, the job that has delivered more prime ministers than any other is not chancellor, but leader of the opposition.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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