There is a scene in one of the Lord of the Rings films in which kindly Bilbo Baggins becomes contorted with fury as he glimpses the ring around the neck of his young cousin Frodo and tries to snatch it away. This shocking loss of emotional balance reminds us of the old saying that power corrupts. It also puts one in mind of the recent snappy and petulant public displays of the hitherto mild-mannered Rishi Sunak.
In his latest interview, the Chancellor has even started referring to himself in the third person – always a psychologically revealing moment in the life of a celebrity. ‘She’s not her husband’s possession,’ he said of his wife Akshata Murty, ‘Yes he’s in politics and we get that but I think, you know, that we get that she can be someone independent of her husband,’ he told the Sun.
This interview, in which he hits out at an ‘awful smear’ from Labour, comes as his allies brief other newspapers that they think 10 Downing Street is in fact behind a co-ordinated campaign against him.
That such thoughts are being aired within Team Rishi is highly revealing; it implies that rumours of bad blood with Team Boris next door are well-founded. It all adds up to a picture of someone who has become convinced that he was about to become Prime Minister and is struggling to deal with having had the ring of power apparently within his grasp, only to see it fall out of reach again, perhaps permanently.
Another report suggesting Sunak thinks he could be the victim of a criminal ‘hit job’ is yet more evidence that introspection has taken the place of effective communication in the Chancellor’s modus operandi. At the start of February, on the day of Munira Mirza’s resignation as Johnson’s policy chief, ostensibly over his Commons claim that Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, most Westminster observers thought the PM was doomed. Sunak, at Johnson’s lowest ebb, grandly declared: ‘I wouldn’t have said it’.
This was surely almost as much of an invitation to mutinying Tory MPs to remove Johnson as Geoffrey Howe’s famous ‘broken bats’ resignation speech was an invitation to their forebears to remove Margaret Thatcher. But Howe’s attack worked and Sunak’s didn’t. The main difference of course was that Howe was entirely focused on removing the incumbent, while Sunak’s eye was mainly on the succession. So Howe attacked front-on while Sunak just gave a coded nod to the insurrectionists.
Since then, everything has fallen apart for him. All his strengths have become weaknesses. His spring statement fell awkwardly between two stools: he couldn’t decide on whether to carry on playing Robin Hood or switch into Sheriff of Nottingham mode. His slick infographics and photo opportunities have been turned against him too, as in the now notorious shot of him filling up a Kia Rio that turned out to belong to a Sainsbury’s staff member. That led to questions about what cars he did in fact own and his answer that he drove ‘a Golf’ was followed by revelations that he owned a fleet of high-end vehicles.
From there it was but a short hop into the overall financial circumstances of the Sunak family and revelations about his billionaire wife’s non-dom status. Speculation about Sunak himself holding a United States ‘green card’ at one time, implying loyalty to another country, may prove to be more toxic still.
Old Westminster hands certainly detect a brutally effective Labour attack grid in operation – no doubt the end product of months of careful information-gathering and planning. Having weakened Boris Johnson over partygate, knocking the shine off his likely successor became a strategic opposition priority. But it may well be that Sunak has been caught in a pincer movement, with allies of the Prime Minister also keen to take him down a peg or two over his perceived lack of loyalty to their newly reinvigorated boss.
Ultimately his best hope is to knuckle down for a long, hard slog as a Chancellor in charge of repairing the weakened public finances. Cutting out interviews in which he comes over as sulky would be a good place to start.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.