When Victoria Beckham noticed that her husband David had developed a winning way, not just with her but with almost everyone else too, she came up with a wry nickname for him: Goldenballs. What billionaire’s daughter Akshata Murthy calls her husband Rishi Sunak within the confines of their family homes is anybody’s guess but there is no doubt that he is on a golden run of his own right now.
As his rivals to succeed Boris Johnson blow up — both Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel are currently subject to heavy speculation about imminent demotion — nobody seriously believes that Sunak’s position as Chancellor is in jeopardy.
Even though, over the summer, Johnson pondered aloud whether Sunak might not make an excellent health secretary in a joking-not-joking manner, the jibe was widely seen as an act of weakness from a PM rattled by his next-door neighbour’s burgeoning reputation rather than as a meaningful threat. The same applies to a remark made by Sajid Javid this week when he was asked if he would have taken the same approach as Sunak were he still Chancellor: 'He’s been trained well'.
On the one hand, this was Javid — a man who still nurses leadership ambitions of his own — reminding us that Sunak was his junior during his own brief tenure at the Treasury. On the other, it is a measure of the rapid change in the relative status of the two men. Sunak would never resort to such clunky one-upmanship, having perfected the art of radiating his security in his own superstar status via generosity and politeness towards others. Indeed, the beginning of the end of Anneliese Dodds's shadow chancellorship was signalled when he responded to her erratic speech in a Commons debate by saying simply: 'I thank her for that contribution'.
This week the Chancellor deployed a similar technique at the expense of Johnson himself by telling Tory MPs that he 'takes his lead from the PM' — an observation that was simultaneously both faultlessly loyal and a tacit acknowledgement that some of the parliamentary party now regard him as the government’s main driving force. Within Whitehall, it has been noted that Sunak has somehow managed to turn the merging of the PM and Chancellor's advisers — the issue that caused Javid to resign — to his own advantage. Far from the PM being able to assert himself as 'First Lord of the Treasury', as intended by Dominic Cummings when he proposed the move, the result has been to extend the Chancellor’s reach into the Downing Street machine.
With Johnson buffeted by the Covid pandemic and subject to seemingly random changes of mind, Sunak has won the admiration and loyalty of staff making up the joint Downing Street team — mainly by being very good at his job and highly professional in his dealings with them.
One key takeaway from this week’s tax hike is that traditional Treasury concerns about sound public finances have been reasserted by Sunak. Higher spending has been funded via a major tax increase rather than yet more borrowing. While that does not quite represent a move towards the 'austerity' that Johnson has always opposed, it does bring an end to the PM’s cakeist approach of raising expenditure without matching moves to raise the revenue to pay for it. A form of fiscal conservatism is being reimposed. This leaves the PM confessing to a breach of a manifesto commitment and may turn more Tory voters against him.
So could anything stop the rise and rise of Rishi Sunak? Well yes, actually. For a start, the Chancellor will soon have to take some flak of his own when he unveils a spending review that is bound to be eye-wateringly tight for important parts of the public realm like the police, the courts and local government. Inflation and rising interest rates will also test his mettle.
Secondly, there are few more perilous positions in Tory politics than that of heir presumptive — as the likes of George Osborne and Michael Portillo could testify. The supposed successor is there to be shot at. None of the current cabinet seem able to beat Rishi. But there is no sign of Boris Johnson taking his leave anytime soon and plenty of talent rising through the ministerial ranks.
Sunak’s best chance of fending off all-comers will be by becoming Johnson’s own preferred successor. Given current reports of scratchiness between No. 10 and 11, that may appear unlikely. But never put anything past a Goldenballs.