Just before Rishi Sunak’s statement, a buzz went around that the Chancellor was going to hold a photocall with somebody interesting…
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, flanked by two remarkable women: On his left was Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, while on his right was Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, President of the Confederation of British Industry.
The sight of the leaders of the union movement and the bosses’ group sent a signal that this Chancellor believes coronavirus must be tackled from a big tent, and with “togetherness” and “collective responsibility”, as he put it in his statement to the Commons.
Later, there was a conspicuous absence from the Chancellor’s tent. When Mr Sunak took his place on the green leather benches of the House of Commons, MPs pointed to the empty space beside him. Where was the Prime Minister, they called out? While his Chancellor was delivering one of the most important statements of the year, Boris Johnson was at a visit to police recruits in Northamptonshire.
No 10 officials are keen to stress that there is no rift between the First and Second Lords of the Treasury, that they agree on all things, and that Mr Johnson’s day trip was long-standing. But there is no denying that the two men have different political styles. Johnson does not give a platform to trade union leaders, but hoards influence like a miser, and has been accused of “purging” critics from the Tory benches. Sunak was advertising an inclusive approach. As he told MPs : “The truth is the responsibility for defeating coronavirus cannot be held by government alone. It is a collective responsibility, shared by all. Because the cost is paid by all.”
There were phrases in his statement that may set alarm bells ringing at No 10. Sunak spoke about the impossibility of seeking to “mandate behaviour to such an extent we lose any sense of personal responsibility” and finished with a bold flourish: “We must learn to live with it and live without fear.” Such sentiments go far beyond a technocratic explanation of the new Jobs Support Scheme, but stray into the exalted territory of leadership.
When Johnson appointed Sunak as Chancellor, following the forced resignation of the more experienced Sajid Javid, it was clear that this was a Prime Minister installing a junior who would align HM Treasury with 10 Downing Street. There was no doubt at No 10 who would be boss. As part of the price of promotion, the new Chancellor agreed to the terms that the old chancellor refused to accept: That his political advisers would be work under No 10’s joint-command.
Mr Sunak has honoured the bargain to the letter. Nobody can point to leaks, inappropriate comments or wilfulness that suggests any division at the top.
But time has accelerated in the gale force winds of the Covid emergency. Mr Sunak has matured rapidly and dazzled in action, with unprecedented policies like furloughing and now the JSS. His stock has soared among colleagues and the public. Lord O’Donnell, the former Cabinet secretary who rose to the top of Whitehall under a big tent premier, John Major, this morning singled out Mr Sunak as a “strong political leader” who “has played a blinder” and also “gets on well with his civil servants”. “That shows you how government at its best can work,” said O’Donnell. Note the emphasis on working with the civil service: The old guard is itching to be freed from Mr Johnson’s anti-establishment inner circle.
Today looks like being another milestone for the Chancellor, not just in his part of the effort to overcome Covid-19, but in his personal journey; a journey many MPs believe is headed towards No 10.