Rishi Sunak is the Beethoven to Boris Johnson’s brass band

Coronavirus crisis has thrust together the fates of Britain’s PM and his chancellor

 Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak: There is media speculation about the political threat Mr Sunak represents to Mr Johnson. Photograph: Jessica Taylor

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak: There is media speculation about the political threat Mr Sunak represents to Mr Johnson. Photograph: Jessica Taylor

 

When Boris Johnson left the dispatch box after half an hour of knockabout bluster at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday and Rishi Sunak took his place, the change of tone was arresting. It was as if an unruly brass band knocking out Colonel Bogey had made way for Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata.

Where Johnson was bombastic, broad brush and evasive in response to questions, Sunak was calm, detailed and lucid as he set out the government’s latest response to the economic impact of coronavirus.

Almost unknown before he became chancellor of the exchequer in February, Sunak is Britain’s most popular politician and the minister universally acknowledged to have performed best during the crisis. His popularity owes something to the fact that, while Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have been reporting the daily death toll from coronavirus, Sunak has been announcing one multibillion-pound scheme after another to funnel money to businesses and workers.

Personal touch

He has not been shy about identifying himself with these handouts and Wednesday’s announcements on subsidised restaurant meals, VAT and stamp duty cuts and job creation schemes were followed by smart social media ads carrying Sunak’s signature in the bottom left hand corner. He ended his statement to the Commons on a personal note.

“Governments, much less people, rarely get to choose the moments that define them. What choice there is comes in how we respond. For me, this has never just been a question of economics, but of values. I believe in the nobility of work. I believe in the inspiring power of opportunity. I believe in the British people’s fortitude and endurance.

Patience vs uncertainty

“And it is that value, endurance, more than any other that we need to embody now – a patience to live with the uncertainty of the moment and to find that new balance between safety and normality. We will not be defined by this crisis but by our response to it,” he said.

A couple of metres away, Johnson nodded indulgently and despite media speculation about the political threat Sunak represents to the prime minister, their relationship is said to be good. From the Conservatives’ electoral perspective, they may also complement one another, with Johnson appealing to some of the party’s new supporters while Sunak reassures traditional Tory voters.

Crucially, their fates depend on one another so that if Sunak succeeds in averting economic disaster, Johnson will reap some of the political rewards and if he fails, they will both go down together.

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