When the Times last put Rishi Sunak on the cover of its Saturday magazine, in August 2020, it used a picture that was almost normal. There stood the chancellor behind a green leather chair, wearing a navy suit and purple tie – but Photoshopped above his head was one extra detail: a gold halo, as if to say here is no mere finance minister, but an envoy from God.
Back then, lots of people thought the chancellor was simply divine. This was the era of “dishy Rishi”, of pundits gurgling in delight over a professionally curated Instagram feed, of GQ magazine mooning over the 40-something as an “unlikely style hero”. “Are Sunak’s suits really all that good? Or am I being blindsided by those kind eyes and that flawless complexion?”, mused its style director, like a character from a Judy Blume novel. It might have been only two years back, but it feels like an eternity ago.
Bad news now clings to Sunak like burrs to a dog after a walk in the woods. First, the resounding emptiness of last month’s spring statement, even as the country was sliding into a historic social and economic crisis. Then last week’s revelations that his wife doesn’t pay UK tax on her international income and that the chancellor himself held a US green card while living in Downing Street. And on Tuesday, the Metropolitan police slapped him with a fine for attending a birthday party for Boris Johnson. Sunak’s allies are telling journalists he is furious about the police decision, saying he only went to the cabinet room to see the prime minister about something else. This may be true. What is false is the chancellor’s claim that he broke no rules and that he “did not attend any parties”. Just like his boss, he has lied to both the public and parliament.
It is now almost impossible to see Sunak as a serious contender for No 10, as he was just a few months ago. His abstemious diligence offered a contrast to Johnson’s exuberant shamelessness. He spoke fluent spreadsheet while doling out relatable content on social media. During the pandemic, he slogged away at his desk while his colleagues went paddleboarding or smooched in their ministerial offices. He was a technocrat in an age of populism, a grownup among a cabinet of sullen bumblers. He was a David Cameron protege who’d thrived in the Johnson era, going from rookie MP to second-top job in government in just five years. He was slick, sharp, seemingly centrist. He was, in short, the prime minister for those who claimed to be politically homeless.
Or so went the pitch. I have never bought it. Throughout his time at No 11, Sunak has veered between myopia and cruelty. He was late to spot just how serious Covid would prove to be, delivering a budget in mid-March 2020 that had to be pulled apart and updated, week after week. His crowning achievement was to introduce the furlough scheme, which he wound up with such indecent haste that he was then forced to extend the scheme, at one point only five hours before it was due to expire.
In organising the £46bn “bounce back loan scheme”, he has overseen the greatest amount of fraud of any chancellor – so bad that one of his own ministers, Lord Agnew, resigned in disgust. Considering the sums of public money involved, this scandal should be on every front page in Britain: tens of thousands of loans handed to potential fraudsters and an estimated figure of up to £20bn lost from the public purse. Perhaps £4bn of that will be written off as fraud – roughly as much as Sunak has chopped off this year’s foreign aid budget.
The apparently non-ideological Conservative, as William Hague dubbed him, has allowed out-of-work benefits to fall this month to a 50-year low. The man who couldn’t sort out the sick pay system at a time when unprecedented numbers were falling sick, instead dreamed up Eat out to help out, which cost taxpayers £840m while also encouraging Covid to spread. According to the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Economic Journal, the scheme “can account for between 8% [and] 17% of all new [Covid-19] infections” during the period in which the scheme was active, (and likely many more non-detected asymptomatic infections). But it did yield a great photo op, in which everyone’s favourite ex-hedge funder put in a shift waiting tables at Wagamama.
No Labour chancellor could have got away with wasting such vast sums. No politician should get off the hook for enacting policies that make people ill. And no prime ministerial would-be should be allowed to have no plans to deal with the soaring cost of fuel and goods. Those are the charges for which the chancellor should be arraigned, not chirruping Happy Birthday with Carrie Johnson.
Yet, up until very recently, Sunak has enjoyed an amazing lack of scrutiny. He sits at the very centre of the curious nexus between the Spectator and Downing Street. He was best man at the wedding of the magazine’s political editor – the wife of whom went on to become Sunak’s spokeswoman. The newspapers treated this cosiness as mere happy coincidence. His background in shadow banking, his £10m portfolio of houses, his anti-lockdown politics: none of it raised so much as an eyebrow. He married into the family of one of the most important businessmen on the planet, Narayana Murty of Infosys, but the chancellor’s father-in-law has aroused barely any curiosity in the British press. Yet as the writer Emiliano Mellino points out in his latest Substack, the man who Sunak calls “wonderful” opposes the forming of trade unions in India’s IT industry and has called for workers to put in 60-hour weeks.
Sunak was the Icarus of this parliament, the man who crashed to Earth but should never have been allowed to fly so high in the first place. And now the competition to replace Johnson will go on without him, its new frontrunners exposing just how strange and swivel-eyed today’s Conservative party really is. Liz Truss, anyone?