Why Boris Johnson needs more than just one Rishi Sunak

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is a model for the type of talented cabinet minister that the British Prime Minister needs around him

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Leisurewear is an alien import on the British political scene but one man has used it as armoury throughout 2020.

Prepping for the ruling Conservative party conference speech last week, Rishi Sunak posted on Instagram a picture of himself stood at the lectern while wearing grey joggers. Chic as the sweatpants were, I doubt that any other Conservative frontline politico would do that in public.

Mr Sunak's has been a meteoric success in a year filled with dying stars crashing to Earth. His Indian-born parents arrived in Britain, built a business and their bright son managed to go to Winchester School, one of the world’s oldest, on a scholarship.

Today, the fate of the British economy rests on his slender shoulders. The Covid-19 infection rate does not fall in his purview, so Mr Sunak has sought to shape the economic response with his own fresh personal touches.

Early in the crisis when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalised with Covid-19, Mr Sunak posted the first of the hoodie pictures wishing his leader back to health.

Ever since, clothing has sent signals.

Few would have picked a slim man on "the Tube", London's underground rail network, as the holder of the UK's purse strings in early September. He was wearing a face mask, unusual at the time in London when it was not compulsory on public transport. An hour later, he was at an event wearing a custom-made hoodie to launch the Kickstart jobs retraining scheme to respond to the pandemic.

Rarely has a politician made such a big impression with the public in such a short period of time.

Mr Sunak pitched into the job, which involves living in No 11 Downing St next to the boss, in February. Now 40, he married Akshata Murthy in 2009 after they met at Stanford University. She is the daughter of a legend of Indian business, Narayana Murthy, who is co-founder of Infosys, an IT company.

The Covid-19 crisis is nowhere near a turning point. Having pursued a lockdown and then allowed a social-focused reopening that neglected clear guidance on the workplace, the British government presides over an economy that remains almost 10 per cent smaller than it was in February.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Sunak has not attracted opprobrium but, instead, has zoomed to the top of the confidence charts in public polling.

The MBA graduate has sought to maintain confidence that recovery is still in touch. Yet, he also commits to strong public finances and warns of "hard choices". "This doesn't mean a horror show of tax rises with no end in sight," he told the party conference when he appeared at the event in sober dark blue suit. "But it does mean treating the British people with respect, being honest about the challenges and showing them how we plan to correct our public finances."

Mobilising the power of the English language has been a key tenet of his work. Schemes such as the Kickstart training programme have been presented with pinpoint sharpness. A drive to ensure that people emerged from the lockdown confident about social interaction was brilliantly packaged.

FILE PHOTO: A diner has a lunch outside a restaurant in Didsbury, as the 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme continues, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Manchester, Britain, August 10, 2020.  REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme picked up half the food bills for meals on Monday-Wednesday and was a shot in the arm for hospitality. On Friday, he announced a Winter Economic Plan to withstand the rolling shutdown under way as infections grow.

For those with a dystopian view of the world, the pandemic can sometimes seem like branding exercise. But Mr Sunak’s efforts are far more accessible and encouraging than the government’s overall social distancing and public health slogans.

Beyond the words, Mr Sunak has also proven a savvy operator in how to mobilise the government machine. One former senior ambassador told a meeting last week that there was no coincidence that Mr Sunak’s high poll numbers came after he established a good relationship with his officials.

William Hague pointed out that Rishi Sunak was a model for the type of talented cabinet minister that Mr Johnson needed around him

The Treasury department is the undeniable gorilla in the British government machine. It not only raises taxes but expects other departments to justify how the funds are spent. While there is resistance from other departments – known to insiders as "consent and evade", or knowing to quietly disavow what is agreed upon – it is generally true that Treasury rules prevail.

A well-liked minister who is not at war with his officials draws dividends from a smooth functioning machine behind his every move. William Hague, the former foreign secretary and a sage observer of the Conservative party, last week made a comment on Mr Sunak, who followed in his footsteps by winning the very safe House of Commons seat of Richmond in Yorkshire.

Mr Hague pointed out that Mr Sunak was a model for the type of talented cabinet minister that Mr Johnson needed around him. “The government needs more Rishi Sunaks,” he said. “It needs to look in a couple of years like it’s a team of brilliant ministers directing hard-working advisers.”

As for the man himself, Mr Sunak was definite last week that he did not want to move on the top job. "God, no. Definitely not."

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National