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LONDON – Being a rising star in British politics is a dangerous thing, as Rishi Sunak is only just discovering.
The British chancellor, who became a household name for his bold economic response to COVID-19, was hailed as Boris Johnson’s most obvious successor as prime minister a few weeks ago. But now, after a budget flop and in the midst of an intense scrutiny of his family’s own tax rules, the chief finance minister is coming down on earth.
Westminster watchers – and particularly the all-important Conservative MPs who get to pick Johnson’s eventual successor – are openly wondering if Sunak blew his shot at the top job.
“I think he’ll go,” said a Tory MP, who speculated that Sunak’s Richmond constituency “will have a new MP pretty soon”.
They added: “He will not be a PM now and it shows how superficial his support has been. He was the front runner because everyone thought he was going to win, not because he was popular in the party.”
Others, however, say it’s far too early to write Sunak off – but even they want the embattled chancellor to learn hard lessons from the political bruises he’s suffering.
Sunak’s problems would have been difficult to imagine six months ago. He is an MP who has seemingly had political success under control since he was first elected to Parliament in 2015.
He quickly excelled in the class of 2015 and his shares only rose with the Brexit vote, which returned him early to the victorious Leave side while avoiding some of the ideological baggage of veteran Tory Eurosceptics.
Sunak’s path to high political office was also rapid. He received his first ministerial post in 2018 and just two years later became Chancellor – perhaps the most powerful role in the Cabinet alongside the Prime Minister – after an internal dispute eclipsed Boris Johnson’s first choice.
He barely had his feet under the Treasury Department desk when the pandemic hit. Here, too, Sunak benefited, gaining notoriety and popularity when he unveiled a package of support measures, including a program to pay the wages of workers who would otherwise have lost their jobs, and heavy government rebates on food spending to boost ailing restaurants.
Meanwhile, Sunak managed to convince the conservative base of Conservatives, with naturally low taxes and small states, that he was one of them by issuing strong warnings of tougher times ahead and publicly voicing his fiscal conservatism. When Johnson ran into serious political trouble amid a scandal surrounding potentially anti-lockdown-violating parties in government posts, Sunak’s name was at the top of the list of successors.
But Sunak first faltered badly in March when he unveiled a mini-budget in which he offered little new help for people hardest hit by rising inflation and energy bills. At the same time, he pushed for tax increases that shook the party’s traditional right.
Then the wheels really came off.
Sunak was pushed onto the defensive last week The Independent revealed his wife Akshata Murty – heiress to a major Indian IT fortune – claimed non-resident taxpayer status. This means she paid a fee of £30,000 a year to register as a ‘Non-Dom’ and paid no tax on non-UK income
‘Non-Dom’ status has long been a contentious issue in British politics, particularly given that some of those who declare their residence abroad, like Murty, spend most of their time in the UK. She has since publicly relinquished her – perfectly legal – status and has agreed to pay UK tax on all her income.
But the political damage has already been done, and some in Sunak’s own party think he has badmouthed his response to the dispute.
“He’s a toast,” said one MP involved in discussions about Johnson’s ouster earlier this year, emphasizing the terrible timing of the news: “The perception that taxes are going up for the nation while its budget is… Using non-Dom status to downplay his looks is really horrible — it’s hypocritical.”
In an exceptional rearguard action, Sunak knocked out in press coverage and accused journalists of “uncomfortable slanders,” while his allies even suggested to reporters that Johnson’s office leaked the original story about his wife.
A former government adviser said: “The fact that he seems stunned by this is really quite shocking. How many MPs will you support long-term if you just walk away every time a negative story comes up?”
lack of nous?
Removal vans were even photographed transporting furniture from Sunak’s Downing Street flat over the weekend, and it has been reported that the Chancellor and his family will now be spending more time at their west London home.
Several MPs drew attention to the poor looks of Sunak’s desertion at the first sign of trouble – and fear it indicates a naivety and lack of political sanity about which they had previously been unconcerned.
A senior conservative suggested that even before the chancellor’s recent woes, Sunak was giving the impression of being “too corporate – a robot from Silicon Valley”.
The same ex-adviser quoted above added that Sunak’s privileged background “would keep coming up” and “the test for him would be how he handled it”.
His background can certainly read like an elite checklist. The son of a doctor and a pharmacist, Sunak attended the prestigious Winchester School before studying at Oxford and Stanford Universities. Before entering politics, he worked for Goldman Sachs and later as a hedge fund manager.
Yet Britain is no stranger to privileged leaders either, and Sunak — deep-rooted in the world of tech and finance, savvy on social media — also offers a sharp contrast to Johnson and his second-oldest predecessor, David Cameron, part of a pal’s old elite who make it accustomed to muddling through and rolling onto links.
Meanwhile, Sunak’s background – he’s the son of Indian parents and a waiter at a Southampton restaurant – isn’t the simple tale of sheer privilege he’s sometimes derided as.
Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future, predicts the source of Sunak’s wealth will matter less than whether he sticks to the rules. “In a way, being Sunak is easier than [former Chancellor] George Osborne—he [Sunak] speaks to a sense of social mobility and people will ultimately judge him on his competence.”
Other Conservative MPs feel sympathy for Sunak after his harsh performance in the press and say they heard the same opinion from voters.
Another MP, who admitted he and others were “disturbed” by Sunak’s handling of the debacle, nonetheless predicted a bright future for him. “My guess is that he needs to be transferred and maybe that would be good for him to run a spending department and build his political skills,” they added. “We all like him and feel for him.”
Another factor could still save Sunak: a lack of alternatives if Johnson leaves office – with much skepticism towards his closest rival, the foreign secretary.
Tory backbenchers, unsettled by a political firmament that doesn’t include Sunak, who has long been seen as a natural choice, might seek to back him for precisely that reason.
“Who else do we have?” one quipped. “Liz Truss?”
https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnsons-heir-apparent-rishi-sunak-comes-unstuck/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Boris Johnson's heir to the throne is out of control - POLITICO