Boris Johnson is the biggest beneficiary of Rishi Sunak’s self-inflicted woes

Rishi Sunak has not taken adversity well. He has shown a petulance and a tendency to blame others for bad news for which only he is responsible.

He should have “seen this slow train coming a long time ago”, as Paul Goodman, a sympathetic Conservative and former MP put it.

Instead the chancellor has compared himself to Will Smith, whose wife was also disrespected; he has blamed the Labor Party for “smearing” his wife and his father-in-law “to get at me”; and his “allies of him” have blamed Boris Johnson for briefing against him, one telling The Daily Telegraph: “It’s all coming from No 10. Rishi’s the only credible show in town.”

It is unifying and mostly untrue. Far from smearing anyone, Labor has been asking legitimate questions about the chancellor’s private interests. That they were legitimate was confirmed when Akshata Murty, Sunak’s wife, announced that she would henceforth pay UK tax on her international income.

Nor do I think the prime minister is responsible for the information making its way into the public domain. The common assumption about news stories such as these is to assume that they are the product of a controlling intelligence, part of some tightly knit group’s plan for world domination, when reality is usually chaos, gossip and journalism. Anna Isaac, my colleague on The Independentis a good journalist who has found things out and published them.

Johnson may be the biggest beneficiary of Sunak’s troubles, but he didn’t need to do his chancellor down any further to secure his position. The attempt to challenge Johnson’s leadership had already been called off, and Sunak’s standing with the party and with the public had already collapsed as a result of last month’s ill-judged spring statement.

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Indeed, Johnson’s longer-term prospects are hardly helped by re-fixing in people’s minds the idea that this is a government of rich people whose tax affairs are different from those of the typical voter.

No, the author of Sunak’s disarray is Sunak himself. He knew his wife’s non-dom status was a problem, which is why he didn’t tell more people about it. The Treasury said he disclosed it – but to the Cabinet Office – when he first became a minister in the local government department in 2018, and to the Treasury when he became chief secretary a year later.

But the ministerial code requires him to provide the permanent secretary of his own department with a list of “all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict”. The code could not be clearer: “The list should also cover interests of the minister’s spouse or partner and close family which might be thought to give rise to a conflict.”

The prime minister seemed to enjoy getting his own back on Sunak yesterday when he said “no”, he hadn’t known the chancellor’s wife was a non-dom. That was a repayment for Sunak’s conspicuously delayed support for Johnson when the prime minister apologized in the Commons for lockdown parties in Downing Street.

Johnson also said, at a press conference with Germany’s Olaf Scholz, when he was asked about Sunak’s US green card: “As I understand it, the chancellor has done absolutely everything he was required to do.” (That was a reference to the chancellor of the exchequer and not the chancellor of Germany, the latest foreign leader to watch, bemused, as British domestic politics interrupted world affairs.) That “as I understand it” was saying in effect that Sunak was safe for now, but that if there are further awkward disclosures, he might not be.

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The green card, conferring permanent resident status in the US, is probably not that damaging to Sunak. It doesn’t have any tax benefits; he seems to have used it, as many of the global rich do, to allow him to “come and go from the US as if he were a passport holder”, as one tax accountant put it.

His wife’s non-dom status is different, although now that she has given up the tax advantage of it, most of that damage has been belatedly limited too. She will still enjoy an advantage for inheritance tax, but she has dealt with the immediate problem, paying millions, backdated to the tax year just ended, to save her husband’s political career from her.

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There is a new danger for Sunak in The Independent‘s report last night that he is named as the beneficiary of trusts in the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. We need to know more about that, as Pat McFadden, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, has – legitimately – said. But for now Sunak has done enough, belatedly and with bad grace, to survive in post.

He survives, but he is weakened. A lesser chancellor might have gone – to be replaced by Steve Barclay or Nadhim Zahawi, perhaps – but Johnson needs someone of Sunak’s ability in the cabinet. We can see who might replace Sunak if he fell, but suddenly it is harder than ever to see who could replace Johnson. One of Sunak’s great strengths was that he seemed to be an oven-ready alternative prime minister should his party and his country need one.

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Now that’s gone. Ben Wallace, Liz Truss, Sajid Javid and Tom Tugendhat are all Remainers; yet Zahawi, Barclay, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove are not yet the obvious answer to the Conservative Party’s prayers.

Boris Johnson is even more secure in No 10 for the time being, even if Sunak’s problems make the next election a little harder for the Conservatives to win.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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