Patrick O'Flynn

Is Rishi Sunak any good at politics?

It’s time for the Chancellor to step up

Is Rishi Sunak any good at politics?
Rishi Sunak (Photo: Getty)
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Is Rishi Sunak any good at politics? In recent days Labour sources have been putting it about that they no longer fear the prospect of the Chancellor stepping up to take over from Boris Johnson if he is forced out by partygate.

According to one briefing to the left-wing New Statesman, Keir Starmer’s team has concluded that ‘Little Rishi’ is ‘crap at politics’ after observing his response to the cost-of-living crisis and now thinks that Liz Truss may prove a more formidable successor to Johnson in electoral terms at least.

With politics being surpassed only by espionage as a theatre for the use of misinformation and double-bluffs, it may be that Labour’s onslaught against Sunak indicates the very opposite – that in fact he really is the Tory they think they cannot beat and they are attempting to trash his ratings in the short-term.

But it is certainly true that since the advent of Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor, Labour has closed the gap on perceived economic competence in the eyes of the electorate. Last spring the Tories led by 21 points, now the lead is down to just eight and that is before national insurance rises and energy bill increases hit.

Along with Starmer, Reeves has pushed an agenda depicting the Tories as wasteful on spending and biased in favour of the privileged few and against ordinary folk. So far, Sunak has failed to come up with a convincing riposte.

If he is ever to be regarded not merely as a talented figure whose fluency and confidence helped the British economy through the emergency phases of the Covid pandemic but also as an effective political Chancellor, then Sunak must challenge and change this narrative in his Budget expected on March 23rd.

His task will not merely be to show that the economy continues to surpass expectations under his stewardship and that he has a strategy for helping people through inflationary pressures, but also to take apart Labour’s plans for it.

In short, he must use the Budget as a political cudgel with which to beat the opposition to a pulp in just the way that Gordon Brown – and later George Osborne – did for so many years.

Labour’s record as a party which has always left office with unemployment higher than when it entered it and often with the public finances trashed should help him in this task. But there is more ammunition easily available that Sunak has not yet seen fit to fire.

Throughout the Covid pandemic, Labour has been on the side of longer and harsher lockdowns and other restrictions. Last summer, Keir Starmer himself opposed the ending of restrictions in England by Boris Johnson in mid-July and predicted that a huge Delta wave would overwhelm the NHS. It never came but what did occur, as shown by official ONS figures a week or so ago, was a very strong economic growth spurt.

That growth was only knocked back by ‘Plan B’ restrictions which accompanied the Omicron wave of Covid. Yet again, Labour wanted to go further, with its new golden boy Wes Streeting berating Johnson for not imposing harsher measures at the Cabinet meeting of December 20.

In fact, Johnson’s decision not to go beyond the light touch Plan B has been vindicated by the relative mildness of Omicron and key metrics such as hospitalisation numbers have not proved disastrous. So being wary of the impact of another shutdown on the economy was fully justified – even if in reality the PM was forced to adopt that position because of increasing unrest among backbenchers and Cabinet ministers.

So on Budget day, Sunak should weaponise this superior Tory record of making the right calls on Covid in terms of the size of the economy. Were he political to his fingertips, as Brown was, he would indeed already have suggested to a friendly right-of-centre think tank that an estimate could be produced of the size of the economy had Labour’s policy recommendations been followed by the government.

A smaller GDP, lower tax revenues and a bigger borrowing requirement would all have ensued or be in the pipeline in those circumstances. Sunak should be throwing some devastating financial truth bombs at his Labour opponent on Budget day, which will presumably be Starmer himself, as long as he does not contrive to be ‘pinged’ again. Reeves may also step-up if Sunak designates the event as merely a spring financial statement.

Tory MPs aware that they may soon have to find a replacement for Johnson will also be looking to see how the Chancellor is able to exploit the economic mis-steps of past Labour administrations.

To put it in cricketing terms, the time has come for Sunak to go beyond an impersonation of early David Gower by accumulating a stylish 50 and then sauntering back to the pavilion having lost his wicket to a careless shot. This time he must give a performance of substance and authority. A Graham Gooch-style double century is very much the order of the day.

Pinning the provocative recent Labour assessments of him on a noticeboard in his office so he can see them every day may prove a motivating force too. Whether it is mainly for the good of his own career prospects or his party’s re-election prospects, it is time for us to see a consummate political performance from the Boy Wonder of the Treasury.