Rishi Sunak, the UK chancellor, this week came under sustained fire from the Labour party for the first time over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid signs that the “prime minister-in-waiting” is set to face his biggest political test.
Mr Sunak’s dramatic two-year rise from junior local government minister to the Treasury has left him in an exposed position as the frontrunner for a job for which there is not yet a vacancy. Aged just 40, he is the clear favourite among Tory MPs and the bookies to succeed Boris Johnson.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is now gunning for the man he believes he could face at the next general election, while Conservative MPs — who remain largely star-struck by Mr Sunak — admit tougher times lie ahead.
“He’s walking on water at the moment but give him another six months,” said one Tory MP. “At the moment it’s spend, spend, spend — soon it will be cut, cut, cut. He’s going to go from Father Christmas to the Grim Reaper.”
Another senior Tory MP, an admirer of the chancellor, admitted that some colleagues were “jealous” of Mr Sunak’s rise and were waiting for him to stumble. “My advice to Rishi is: be humble, humble, humble.”
Sir Keir is determined to ensure that Mr Sunak’s reputation is tarnished by what he regards as the government’s shambolic response to the Covid-19 crisis, rather than allowing the chancellor to stay clear of the fray.
At the start of a week of Labour attacks on Mr Sunak, Sir Keir told the conference of business lobby group the CBI: “The chancellor has already announced three economic plans in the last four weeks — all were insufficient. All are out of date.” Mr Sunak is expected to announce more coronavirus economic support on Thursday.
Alongside the charge that Mr Sunak has fumbled the Covid economic response this autumn, Labour is attempting to blame the economically hawkish chancellor for being behind Mr Johnson’s decision not to lock down earlier.
Anneliese Dodds, shadow chancellor, said: “The decision to block a circuit-breaker has the chancellor’s name all over it. This refusal to follow the science and listen to Labour will now be counted in lost lives and livelihoods.”
The attacks were a sign of Labour frustration that, while Mr Johnson’s approval ratings had slumped during the coronavirus crisis, Mr Sunak had proved adept at skipping clear of political trouble.
On Saturday the chancellor wrote on Twitter that the lockdown was “the prime minister’s announcement”, while simultaneously issuing a glossy, signed graphic associating himself with a generous new furlough scheme.
Previously Mr Sunak let it be known that the prime minister’s office, Number 10, had led the failed negotiations with Manchester over tier-3 curbs while he had been willing to release “tens of millions of pounds” for the city.
When the government became enmeshed in another row with Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, over free school meal vouchers, Mr Sunak’s allies pointed out that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, had not put in a spending bid for the £20m a week needed to fund such a scheme.
Mr Sunak has instead preferred to associate himself with the £200bn of economic support announced by the Treasury, largesse usually promoted on social media as a munificent act by the chancellor himself.
Most Tory MPs and ministers are glad that at least one senior figure in the government is acquitting himself well during the crisis, but there are also the first signs of muttering about Mr Sunak’s recent record.
Some ministers complain that his decision to scrap his planned three-year spending review — seen by Number 10 as a chance to relaunch the government’s “levelling-up” agenda — was evidence of the chancellor ducking tough choices.
Ben Wallace, defence secretary, was among those ministers who wanted the certainty over future budgets that a three-year review would have given. He said: “The world does not stop for our reviews.” Mr Sunak said it made no sense to discuss long-term budgets in the midst of a pandemic.
The abandonment of the autumn Budget by Mr Sunak — also blamed on Covid-19 — means that the chancellor faces a difficult 2021, when he will have to adapt spending and tax plans to take account of the ravaged public finances.
Next year he will have to balance the demands of the newly formed Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, who want more spending, with those from southern seats representing voters who will not want to pick up the bill through higher taxes.
Before the spending review was axed, Mr Sunak was engaged in “the usual tensions” with 10 Downing Street over Mr Johnson’s spending demands.
Those will be reignited next year, with the added problem that by then some Tory MPs might be agitating to ditch Mr Johnson. “The prime minister is in serious but not imminent trouble,” said one senior Conservative, after this week’s lockdown U-turn.
Mr Sunak’s allies admit there is a danger for him appearing to be too slick, too ambitious and not a team player. In his speech to the online Tory conference, the chancellor went out of his way to pay homage to Mr Johnson.
The chancellor has this week also used a series of interviews to back the PM’s lockdown, an overt act of loyalty that coincided with polls showing the policy was popular with the public and amid signs that a Tory rebellion on the issue was easing.
When asked about his ambitions, Mr Sunak says that running the Treasury is tough enough. His supporters admit things are about to get even tougher, but believe that the neophyte chancellor will rise to the challenge.