Will Rishi Sunak succeed Boris Johnson?
The FT's Robert Shrimsley and Miranda Green discuss 'brand Sunak', how the chancellor has handled the coronavirus pandemic, and the challenges ahead that could damage his popularity
Produced by Tom Hannen
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I can see a chicken, some writing, Liz Truss, a Union Jack, and Nicola Sturgeon.
And that's appalling. That's like - I'm going to rub that whole bloody thing out.
Could be an upside down Welsh dragon. What are we going to call this one?
Road - oh, green - to Brexit is Paved with Gold. Right, Robert.
I'm here with my lovely little drawing pen to try something new, OK?
So I'm going to do digital pictures while we talk about the road to Brexit.
This is a very complicated thing because I'm actually seeing you through a camera through a laptop, so it's like one those infinite regression paintings you see in art galleries.
Last time we spoke, we - our two main characters were very much Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, but we've got somebody who's been a bit more active this week, the chancellor Rishi Sunak spraying money around as if there was no tomorrow. I wanted to talk to you about Rishi Sunak's mini-budget, the Covid spending, what it means for the economy but also whether we're inevitably looking at Boris Johnson's successor, I suppose.
Well, I think if you ever take a look at his Instagram feed, you can certainly see the photographs are building up a narrative of him as the successor. There's even a great one of him visiting the Globe Theatre and standing in the wings waiting to walk out on stage. It very well calculated.
An incredible sort of personal branding.
Quite remarkable. He puts out little social media slides with his signature on them. The pictures are fantastic. You can tell an enormous amount of thought has been going into them, and they announce a new policy, like the VAT cut. Out will come, on social media, a VAT cut, and there'll be the Rishi Sunak signature as if it's guaranteed by the chancellor. The branding is spectacular.
So this incredible sort of package of yet more money, which he announced in his mini-budget, this is going to take the government's borrowing up to £350bn. It's a sort of massive, crazy sort of uptick in the borrowing graph, which I'm just going to attempt to draw very, very badly here. Like, woo. That's the borrowing graph.
There's a question mark, isn't there? Because obviously this is an extraordinary crisis, and, as he put it, stage one of the spending was about support. Stage two is trying to get the economy back in action. Is it focused in the right way? He made a big hoo-ha with his wonderful, lovely personal branding as you've said, Robert, and being seen serving customers in a restaurant because he wants us all to go and eat on him, discounts to eat out. Is this actually the right sort of stimulus? And whilst you discuss the pros and cons and whether it's value for money, which is quite important, I'm going to attempt to draw Rishi Sunak on a fresh piece of paper serving...
I'm looking forward to seeing that.
...bowls of Wagamama noodles to people.
I think the truth is it was a perfectly reasonable initiative. He's pumping a lot of money, particularly at the hospitality sector, which is the one that worries him the most, and therefore the measures he took are quite well-targeted. We're at about £30bn - up £30bn worth of extra spending, which is a hell of a lot.
And I think the thought that occurred to me while I listened to his budget was that we really don't know if this is going to be enough. He's, as you said, the amount that we're borrowing is already remarkable. There's an autumn Budget to come, and when we get to October, if the economy has not picked up again in the way that he would like, then he's going to be spending a whole lot more.
And I thought that picture, by the way, was almost a metaphor for the problem because there you have him standing in the pub or restaurant. He's not wearing a face mask. He's supposedly serving...
...without a face mask. And the government has pinned so much on getting the economy moving again and saying to people, look, it's safe to go out. You can go out, eat, enjoy. And, yet, it's not doing the sort of extra things that would reassure people in the way that they might want to be reassured.
I know a lot of people have no intention of wearing a face mask. I've been to the pub a couple of times since lockdown was eased, and I was very struck by the lack of these things, even among the servers. And people are still very, very scared, and I think a bit of personal branding might also have been useful to attach to some face masks.
That, I think, is true, and I think you were making the point earlier on as well. But it is a gamble. It's a gamble on the fact that we're exiting the pandemic, rather than potentially being in the middle of two waves, which is unknowable at this point, right? So is this why the civil servants are actually refusing to sign off bits of the mini-budget as what they call value for money?
It's this phrase dead weight, isn't it? That a number of the things they're doing, that the Treasury doesn't like spending money that it needn't spend. And so if you bring in a very sweeping policy, a lot of the people who will get the benefit would have done what they were going to do anyway. The cut in stamp duty is a good example. Anybody who buys a house or sells a house gets the benefit of this stamp duty cut, but many of them would have bought anyway. So that money, in a sense, is not well-targeted.
But his explanation on this, which I think is plausible, is, look, we haven't got time in the middle of a crisis to devise a super focused, targeted policy. We're going to spray the cash out and hope to get the economy moving. Stephen Bush in the New Statesman came up with an absolutely wonderful analogy, one of those ones you wish you'd thought of yourself.
He said that what he's actually doing is rather like a parent teaching a kid to ride a bike in the park. He's running along with them, holding the bike, holding the bike, then suddenly letting it go and hoping that they cycle off rather than topple over. And that's what this budget really was. It was an attempt to push us into confidence in the hope that by the time we get to the end of the year, the economy has lifted off and can cycle on its own.
That is a good metaphor. So it was really interesting actually because something else that came up in that same conversation with Stephen Bush was also this - you know, Rishi Sunak is a political figure because you can't help thinking when you watch Rishi Sunak - he does come across as competent and also has a good tone of voice to communicate in this crisis. It has been noted that he could be a threat to Boris Johnson because I was thinking it's a bit like watching a school play, you know, where all the rest of the am-dram is absolutely appalling, and there's one child actor who's much better - embarrassingly better than the rest. And it does seem a bit like that at the moment with Rishi Sunak.
But it's a challenge also for Keir Starmer, isn't it? Because the Labour party has been very careful since Starmer became leader to try and contrast supposedly bumbling Boris Johnson with competent Keir Starmer. And it's this sort of sober lawyerly figure who's on top...
Oh, that's rather good.
...of the detail.
That's rather good, that Keir Starmer.
He's waving - he's sort of waving an order paper.
Ah, yes, now that looks much - yes, absolutely.
Yeah. OK, we've talked a lot already about how when it comes to the next election, which I'll admit is a long time off, but it could well be being fought on things to do with competence as much as values. And actually if Keir Starmer thinks that that's his number one kind of branding advantage against Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak is showing, when no one else is really, that it's possible to be a competent member of a Conservative Brexity government.
Yes, he is, and I think the Conservatives obviously have a track record of being prepared to dump a leader that's going to lose before they lose, a key difference than the Labour party. So if we're coming towards the next election and Boris Johnson looks like irreparably damaged goods, the Conservative party will get rid of him, and they will replace him with someone who looks a better bet. And at the moment, if only because he's the only tall poppy in cabinet, Rishi Sunak looks like the man who that would be. The only - sorry - what? I'm now completely distracted by your Rishi.
Are you distracted by my excellent art? Is that what's putting you off?
The other two were fantastic.
Are you not keen on Rishi?
I'm not sure that's one he'd put on his own feed. I want to pour a bit of cold water on the Rishi Sunak issue though because I think we're so early into this crisis, we're so early into this government. And the truth is the fundamental things that would undermine Boris Johnson with voters, most of them would also undermine Rishi Sunak.
If we move into a terrible and long-lasting economic crisis, the chancellor is not going to come out of it well just because he comes out of it better than the prime minister. So when we start getting into lots and lots of job losses, when he starts perhaps raising taxes to claw back the enormous cost of this bailout, when he does anything - let's face it. He's done nothing unpopular yet.
Everything he's doing has been throwing out money, and he's done it very well, and I completely agree with everybody who speaks about his talent. But, you know, so far he's not done any of the difficult things a chancellor has to do. And chancellors do not get to number 10 anything like it as often as people think. And one of the reasons is...
That's true. That's really important to remember because there's always this rivalry, but can they move next door? It's not as easy as you might think.
If you were betting on the next prime minister today, you would bet on Rishi Sunak, but there's an awful lot of problems to come. And most of the things that would undermine Boris Johnson undermine Rishi Sunak too. If we get a massive second wave of infection, which is the other great risk at the moment, well, Rishi Sunak's the man who was pushing hardest for the economy to reopen quickly.
If we have massive problems with Brexit, he's a committed Brexiter, and so on, and so on. So all the issues that could really do damage to Boris Johnson have the potential to do damage to Rishi Sunak too. So while I don't quarrel with anybody who says he's the one to watch, he's the coming man, I just think some of this has got a bit breathless a bit early.
I think that's absolutely right. And, actually, in your sort of list of problems that a Sunak takeover would inherit from the Boris Johnson era, I think also something to add to that list is key workers in the public services because something that came out of the crisis was the feeling of wanting to recognise the contribution of people who tend to be quite low paid and quite ignored, really, in the national conversation until something like Covid. There's nothing like a Covid, but this idea of the carers, people in the health service, people working in the utilities, all of the people who work through lockdown and kept the country going. One of the things that it has been noted was missing from Rishi Sunak's package was much for key workers, all the public services, and, in fact, even the £50bn for the public services, which I'll put on a little chart here, a huge chunk of that is paying for PPE equipment going forward.
I'm going to defend him on this one because this primarily was a jobs package. It was about saving jobs, and key workers aren't the people whose jobs were immediately at risk because we're going to carry on needing health workers, and teachers, and suchlike. So at some point, the government's going to have to come good on its promise to reward them, but I think it's legitimate to say, at the moment we're focusing on trying to save the people whose jobs are at immediate risk.
Yeah, I get that, but I just think there's - I think for the government as a whole, they do have a political problem with this because, for example, they only ever mention schools in order to have a battle with the teaching unions. One of the things that has caused a row already is reintroducing carpark charges for NHS workers at hospitals. They really do have - they have to watch this because it's one of those things where any political party has blind spots, right? The things they can't see in the rearview mirror coming to damage them, and this is one for this Conservative government I think.
Politicians - Conservative, Labour - they don't go into politics to make life worse for people rich or poor, and the problem often arises with this empathy gap where they simply don't understand the lives of other people. And I thought this was really strongly brought home at the height of the Covid crisis when they were talking about testing for care home workers. And Matt Hancock and others, hey, look, we've created these great test centres where people can go and get tested for coronavirus. But these were drive-through centres.
In a car. Yeah, that's right.
And a lot of care home workers don't have cars. And so it was one of those classic cases of - it wasn't that the government wanted to be evil or was trying to make life hard. It just - didn't they didn't think about it. But, I mean, your point about key workers also illustrate very much this week with Boris Johnson's attempt to shuffle the blame for care home deaths onto care homes themselves for not following procedures.
So, Robert, in the background of all of this, of course, the inexorable story of the road to Brexit continues. And, in fact, Michel Barnier wearing a mask - very nice mask, Michel - has been in London for sort of informal background to the more formal talks that are going on. But it grinds forward, right?
This is a huge factor as well when we talk about the fate of this government. Rishi Sunak also is a Brexiter, so you are right to add that to the list of things that he would inherit as things where the cost might be held against him. Something else that's come out in the last few days is Scotland is not happy with the direction of Brexit, and this time interestingly over food standards. And the Scottish government, the SNP, has said that they might not co-operate with a post-Brexit setting of food standards by London for the whole UK. So it's the kind of wonderful spectre of the chlorinated chicken which might come to haunt the future of the Union.
And this is about the creation of an internal market within all of the UK, which hasn't been a problem before because we were in the internal market of the European Union.
But, as you said, food, and animal welfare, environmental standards, these are devolved policies in which Scotland gets to set its own course. But all of a sudden you've got the possibility of the UK agreeing a trade deal and Scotland saying, but we don't want this particular product in our country. And so the British government is looking at ways to take back some of these powers to create the internal market.
I mean, I get what they're trying to do here, and I have some sympathy with the need to do it. But you can see just how easily this plays into hands of the nationalists. And there is history of independence movements throwing British products into harbours and places like that. so...
...perhaps there will be chlorinated chicken chucked out into the Firth of Forth or something. It's got the potential to be very, very problematic, but I think the Scots also understand there does have to be some kind of internal market. So it's yet another one of those tricky problems that the government has to deal with.
And I think this is the biggest risk now in Brexit. It's not so much - in terms of political risk rather than risk to the country. It's not so much the economic hits, or the added bureaucracy, and all those other areas which are going to be problematic for the government and for its supporters who believe in Brexit. It's going to be the issue of competence again, and it's going to be if you don't get a deal, you don't look competent. If you don't...
...sort out this problem, you don't look competent. And it's the attritional notion, and that's where, going back to our early discussion, the Rishi Sunak versus Boris Johnson point has some salience because you have one figure who doesn't look tremendously strong on detail and one who does. And that's difficult for Boris Johnson personally, but it's also difficult for the government because if you start making a mess of all the individual issues, at some point, people start asking whether the whole idea was a good one and asking whether you're any good at implementing it.
I think that's absolutely right, isn't it? All of these multiple factors come back again and again to can you pull it off and make it deliver in a way that people recognise as a set of good changes, and were you competent to do so? I mean, I was really struck that there was a poll the other day on Scottish independence. And it's now 54 per cent in favour of independence, and that has gone up by five percentage points since March. So that basically shows you that the way that the Covid-19 crisis has been handled in London by the Boris Johnson government as opposed to how the Scots feel it's been handled north of the border by Nicola Sturgeon has made a real impact on how they might vote in a second independence referendum. I mean, I can't understand why it's not a much bigger story actually other than everything else that's going on.
I think it's a really interesting point, and, of course, the other point about this is the way that Nichola Sturgeon has consistently reinforced the point, you're only the prime minister of England. I'm in charge of Scotland for this crisis. And so it's created in people's minds this consciousness of separation and how this might work, and many Scots like the look of it.
And it is interesting, going back to Rishi Sunak once more, one of the lines he pushed hard in his statement was to say let's just remember that all the money that saved all the jobs in Scotland, that came from the UK government. That all the furlough scheme money, all the other support, that's UK support. So, Scots, don't actually think that it was all down to Nicola Sturgeon because fundamentally your jobs were saved by HMG.
It's a very, very good point that, isn't it? How much can you emphasise that there is money going from the central UK budget to bail out the whole UK and that that's a good argument for sticking together?
If I was the British government I'd be looking at ways of sending letters to every worker explaining how the British government saved their job because I think it is the fundamental argument that people who opposed to independence have is actually this was the big issue, and it came from London, not Edinburgh. OK, so I just want to take us back a bit to Keir Starmer.
OK, that's great. That gives me an opportunity to do his face again.
OK, good. I would say the general consensus so far on him has been really, really positive when we're talking about competence, when we're talking about the issues for the future. I would suggest that Keir Starmer has had a pretty good start as Labour leader. He's done most of the things that you would want to see him doing, and I would've thought his strategies, while not completely delighted - there's loads of other things to do - would be looking at where he is now and feel they've made a good start.
What are the pitfalls though because it's - I mean, it is very, very, very early days, right? I think he's just gone past his 100 days, I think.
The first pitfall is that having a credible leader is a precondition, not a guarantor of victory. So what he's doing so far is simply putting his party in potential contention. The fundamental problem for any opposition is that he's not in charge of events, and that the government makes all the running, sets the agenda on most of the period, and therefore all they can do is pick away at the government's failings, and try to reinforce them to the voters, and start to think about who they are, what they represent, where they want to be when an election comes.
And that's very difficult because they've got to set the parameters of their economic and social policy without getting into too much detail far too early. So there's a lot of thinking to be done there. Until they do have a very clear idea of what they're about and where they are, then they can look a bit shallow and blown with the wind.
But you've got to redefine Labour - haven't you - after the Corbyn years. I've just made Rebecca Long-Bailey's figure very, very small on my Labour chart here because he was actually, in a way, handed an opportunity by the shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey deciding to make some ill-considered social media posts - right - so he was able to demonstrate that he wants to clear out those elements of the Corbyn era which brought the party into disrepute, particularly over anti-Semitism. But, conveniently, it's also the far-left.
Yeah, and that worked out. That was a good week for him, and he made it work very well. And every time he upsets the Corbynites and they shout about it like crazy, you have to assume he's sitting back thinking, well, that's another job done. That's another tick.
I mean, I was talking to a Labour strategist about a week ago, and he saying, you can over-complicate this issue. The two biggest things that did for us at last election were that we had a terrible leader and that we didn't really have a convincing position on the biggest single issue of the day, which was Brexit. And neither of those issues are going to be true next time. That doesn't mean you can get away with having no policies, but, actually, you can make this more complicated than it is.
And I think if I were Keir Starmer now the area I'd be focusing on is what I might call the social conservative agenda, which is where the Conservative party thinks he's very weak, the so-called culture or the values, all this kind of thing, all this social policy stuff where the Labour party is pulling very hard obviously in a progressive direction. And the voters aren't necessarily with them. Particularly, the older voters where they've got absolutely hammered by the Tories at the last election. And I think it's very, very difficult position for him to be in as some of the tightrope walking of the Black Lives Matter has shown for the Labour party. But I think if I were him, I would focusing on law and order and the armed services for quite a long time because if you can show the country that you're solid on those things, they might be a little bit tolerant on the other areas where you want to be more progressive.
It's very interesting though, isn't it? Because, as you say, that is a tightrope that you have to walk to pull that off, particularly because we are operating in such a strange time where conversations about anything that touches on values, or patriotism - law and order is definitely one of those - you can be sucked into kind of culture war territory within a 24-hour news cycle very, very quickly.
Yeah, and it's really hard now on social media to be able to just control this and calm it down in a way that Tony Blair would've been able to do in his time because he didn't face constant Twitter and social media attacks. But look at what Tony Blair did. One of his fundamental focuses was law and order, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. He managed to square that circle, and I think it's that kind of thinking and that kind of triangulation that Keir Starmer is going to have to do to win back those sort of voters and give himself the leeway on the other social policies where he wants to be progressive. I want to ask you one other thing, Miranda.
Little noticed by many people, there is a leadership election going on for the Liberal Democrats...
...at the moment. And I want to ask you is there actually any point to the Liberal Democrats any more...
The big questions - the big questions.
Is there any point?
Yeah, there is, and I'll tell you why. It's not for a very exciting reason, but I'm just - while you're quizzing me on the most important question of the day, the Lib Dems, I'm just writing here ignore Europe in our little Keir Starmer diagram because he's obviously decided to do that, right? It's really important for him to not be Remainer Keir Starmer.
Yeah, the Lib Dem leadership. So if you're going to defeat the Tory party at a general election, it's quite difficult still for the Labour party. And, in fact, as we saw at the general election in December, it was the Tory party that was making massive strides into Labour territory, not remotely the other way around. There's still enough places where Tory-minded people won't vote Labour but might vote Lib Dem to make their sort of - there's a complementary pattern of voting if you want to oust the Tory party from power.
So they're the Brexit party of the left? That's to drain votes off of the Tories?
Well, you could put it like that, or you could say that the Labour party, even in the Tony Blair era, couldn't make itself feel quite safe enough for a chunk of voters. But the Lib Dems can feel safe enough for a chunk of voters to not vote Tory. The Labour party is also going to have a big challenge in Scotland to claw back territory there, which is really important if they want to win a majority against the Tories.
So people in the Labour party used to say about fighting the Tories and fighting the Lib Dems - because there's no love lost, they used to say business before pleasure. Kick the Tories before you have a good time kicking the Lib Dems. And where the Labour party has made big mistakes in recent general elections has tended to be where they've got distracted by trying to crush the Lib Dems actually. I think it's important for the non-Tory parties to recognise that complementarity and that there has to be some sort of unspoken electoral alliance to pull it off.
It's not a brilliant justification for some sort of maintaining the flame of the Liberal tradition I've given you. It's an unglamorous reason, but in terms of electoral calculus I think it's still exists. And, actually, that is quite an interesting question as well about the Lib Dems because they branded themselves as the absolutely the most pro-European party and have been kind of crushed. And as the road to Brexit reaches its final destination at the end of this year, where does that leave a small very pro-European party?
I'm going to go back to my chicken because I'm quite proud of my drawing and just sort of end by asking you, do you think that the Brexit negotiations will be successful in the end, or do you think the whole thing will lay an egg? Do you think they'll lay an egg? Do you see what I did there?
I thought you were going to tell me that the Lib Dems were roadkill on the road to Brexit.
Well, that too, but...
My hunch, I've always been more positive about the prospects for a deal at the end of this year for the reason I went into earlier, which is that actually it just doesn't look very efficient for this government to have failed to get one, which is why, in the end, I think they will do a deal. I also think that the talks are going a little bit better now. We are in what they sometimes like to call the tunnel where the negotiations are getting serious, so my hunch is a deal will get done. But as always, I've always thought that the deal won't necessarily be all that good for Britain, but there we go.
We're on the road for that deal. We're going to spend the next 30 years on this road renegotiating and tweaking as we move along. And who knows, by the time we get to the end of it, the Lib Dem bird may have taken wing again.
Yeah, but I think I need to get better at drawing Rishi, don't I? Because I think we're going to be drawing him a lot in the future.
Yeah, but the rest was great, and the chicken's fantastic.
Thank you so much.