Duplicitous, sly, immature, petulant, and high-handed are just a few of the adjectives a handful of cabinet ministers and senior Conservative MPs reportedly used to describe the chancellor of the exchequer over the weekend.
They were referring to Rishi Sunak’s alleged leadership manoeuvring as the prime minister fights for his premiership with a new No 10 team and pledges to establishing backbench committees to advise on government policy in a bid to shore up support.
Critics of the chancellor’s behaviour have said he should be fired for disloyalty after he publicly distanced himself from Boris Johnson’s personal attack on the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, last week, when the prime minister claimed the Labour leader had failed to prosecute the paedophile Jimmy Savile when he was director of public prosecutions.
According to YouGov, Sunak remains the most popular Conservative politician in the UK, a position he has retained since his initial bounce in popularity in 2020 as the fresh face of the government’s bailout schemes in response to the first wave of the coronavirus. In line with his free market Conservatism credentials, some argue a central part of his leadership campaign would rely on keeping the City of London onside, as the chancellor seeks to reform financial regulation to promote “international competitiveness” and overhaul stock market rules.
However, Sunak’s hypothetical move next door would be far from a bed of roses. Speaking before the House of Commons on Thursday, the chancellor announced a package of measures to mitigate the UK’s cost of living crisis as the fear of a “perfect storm” was made worse by the latest upward move in interest rates from the Bank of England.
The £9bn package includes a one-off repayable £200 discount in October and a rebate on council tax bills to “take the sting” out of a £700-a-year rise in the average household’s energy bills in April. Yet some have suggested it would only cover half the projected increases, with the Scottish government saying the £290m it is expected to receive from the Treasury was too little to cope with energy poverty in Scotland.
While the cost-of-living crisis and his close association to Johnson could seriously hinder Sunak’s chances of becoming prime minister, the ongoing ‘partygate’ scandal could represent the chancellor’s best chance of succeeding the incumbent leader. Whether he dares to wield the knife or decides to pave the way for others to do it, though, remains to be seen.