When Rishi Sunak stands up in the House of Commons today, he will do so as one of the most popular chancellors of the exchequer in recent memory. But just about everything seems to have come easy to Sunak: from being head boy at his private school, to getting a first class degree at Oxford, to making a fortune in the City, marrying the daughter of a billionaire and then being parachuted in to William Hague’s safe Conservative seat, he has made every step of his rise to the cabinet look utterly straightforward. Even his widely derided Instagram posts are polished in their execution.
Nor could the pandemic, and the vast and intimidating challenges it posed, present any real threat to his image: after all, not much will make a politician more popular than promising to guarantee voters’ incomes when they are stuck at home. But now, even as Sunak’s name is mentioned ever more often as a likely future prime minister, that apparently indestructible popularity may face its first real test. As the government seeks to turn the page on the pandemic, he has been an increasingly vocal advocate for tight fiscal controls – and, many say, his Thatcherite impulses are now coming into direct conflict with Boris Johnson’s.
If so, Wednesday’s budget may be the political event that tells the public who Sunak will be in the future – and, by extension, how we can expect the government to navigate the next stage of the recovery from the coronavirus crisis. In this episode, Michael Safi talks to political editor Heather Stewart about how Sunak reached this point, and how his relationship with the prime minister will be a key feature of the rest of this parliament. And we hear from economics editor Larry Elliott about what the extensive trails of the budget have told us about what it will contain – and what nasty surprises may still lie ahead.
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