'Past peak Rishi': Why Conservative support is ebbing from Sunak as favourite to replace Boris Johnson

'Past peak Rishi': Why Conservative support is ebbing from Sunak as favourite to replace Boris Johnson
Rishi Sunak.©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
  • Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has long been favourite to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister.
  • But a worsening economy and some of his political calls have made Tories more reluctant to back him.

Whisper it softly, but Boris Johnson's biggest leadership threat appears to be evaporating.

Two years into his job as chancellor — the first Cabinet role he has held — Rishi Sunak has been the name most frequently linked with the top job.

One Conservative MP, who like all the sources in this article spoke to Insider on the basis of anonymity, said that "very low-level below-the-radar" work to rally support for Sunak continue. Sunak is "sending out personal notes to MPs" thanking them for their support in the chamber, while his team continues to do "lots of schmoozing," he said.

And yet, while Sunak is relatively popular outside Westminster, Tories have been reluctant to support someone whose "leadership qualities are untested," as one backbencher put it. There is also a feeling that Sunak — who studied at Winchester College, went into banking and married the Infosys heiress Akshata Murthy — may draw fire over being the wealthiest MP in Parliament.

Now, that reluctance appears to be growing.


Two other Conservative MPs separately told Insider they believed Sunak was too much the "Treasury's man" to ever be a serious contender for prime minister. Prior to becoming chancellor, in February 2020, Sunak was a relatively unknown chief secretary to the Treasury. In the nearly seven years he has been an MP, just under half has been spent holding the purse strings.

"He has been house-trained by the Treasury," said one former minister. "They feel like they have lost control. It used to be that if the Treasury was against a policy, it didn't happen — that doesn't happen anymore."

Another former minister added: "He is notorious for being captured by civil servants... he doesn't push back and doesn't use political judgment when policy ideas are being proposed."

Support is also eroding amid concern over who is advising the Brexit-backing chancellor.

Conservatives are convinced that the prime minister's disgruntled former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, is angling to have Sunak replace Johnson. Cummings is the bogeyman to many within the party, in part because of his guerilla warfare against the prime minister and Westminster "groupthink."


"His whole motivation is to get Rishi into No. 10 and that has to worry people," one former minister told Insider last month. "We can't have the country run by Dom Cummings any longer. He ran it for Boris. Now he is running it to get rid of Boris. Since 2016, Dominic Cummings has been behind all the decisions of this country."

Many also believe that Munira Mirza is an ally, and suggest her decision to quit as Johnson's policy chief was the beginning of a coup.

That coup has not come to pass, but Sunak's decision to praise Mirza and distance himself from the prime minister's remarks that led to her departure has also raised questions.

"I'm not sure Rishi has been particularly well advised," says a senior Tory. "[His response] looks a bit shifty. He is prodigiously talented, and everybody likes him, but he is not quite politically astute."

Another fundamental reason for Sunak's disappearing support appears to be the fact that Labour has made a point of going after him.


This is not new: Former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds repeatedly sent out comments referring to her counterpart as going AWOL or being MIA. Her replacement, Rachel Reeves, has had more luck hitting home as the economic consequences of the pandemic begin to unwind.

Such is the success she has had, Labour leader Keir Starmer has also gone for the jugular, using the government's lack of grip on the economy as a central plank of his attacks in the two most recent PMQs.

The opposition seems increasingly confident that they could take him on, with one source telling the New Statesman: "Bring on little Rishi."

But back in Downing Street, some believe that Labour has been going after Sunak, at least in part, to play mind games with Tory backbenchers.

"Starmer has clearly decided it is better to keep Boris in place for now because they think that is probably more damaging [to the party], so you talk up Rishi, and the Tories say 'how dare you tell us who should be our leader,'" said one senior Conservative figure.


There is clearly some truth in this. After Christian Wakeford defected from Conservatives to Labour last month, several MPs withdrew their letters of no confidence, and the temperature that had been building up toward a leadership challenge dropped immediately. Tories joke that, far from inflicting untold damage on the prime minister, Wakeford actually saved him.

However, on this subject Labour is onto something of a win-win. As chancellor, his position as the person in charge of the economy is integral to that of the party and there are growing concerns about the impact the cost-of-living crisis will have at the polls.

"Owning someone else's territory is very good in politics," said the insider. "If [Labour] can saddle us with the economic incompetence, that's hard to shake off."

According to YouGov's popularity tracker, Sunak stopped being seen as "doing a good job" just as the furlough scheme started to taper off. Now, perhaps as a reflection of the uncertainty in the economy, people say they are "not sure."

"Rishi is a good guy, but untested. It's always easy to be popular when you are handing cash out," said one backbencher.


Conversely, for the right of the Conservative Party, the chancellor has been too free and easy with taxpayers' money. Even allowing for the pandemic, they argue, he should have had a firmer grip on finances. He should not, they believe, be looking to rebuild the coffers in a way that forces up taxes and threatens to choke off recovery.

"There would have to be tax cuts ahead of the next general election," said the Conservative MP. Another said Sunak had spoken to the 1922 committee of backbench MPs and was "very impressive — made clear public spending restraint equals tax cuts in future."

But, increasingly, the concern is that the economic situation will worsen just at the point when Sunak would look to swoop in. "Cuts will have to be deeper just to keep pace with the cost of living at this rate," said another MP.

The looming National Insurance hike has alarmed more than a few Conservative MPs. Sunak has even reportedly taken to calling the health and social care levy "the Prime Minister's tax", though he subsequently co-authored a column with Johnson explaining why it must go ahead.

The hike and the controversial loan-not-loan to deal with rising energy prices is "Treasury's revenge for profligacy," said another senior MP.


But for many, it also highlights the line between good politics and good economics. If you hurt people in their pocket, it's unlikely they are going to reward you at the polls.

"The economic problems are starting to stick to him," says another senior backbencher. "I think we are past peak Rishi."