They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. If rumours of Boris Johnson’s quickly deteriorating relationship with his Chancellor are anything to go by, it would seem that our Prime Minister has too quickly forgotten Karl Marx’s famous idiom.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: it’s been a terrible week for the Prime Minister. He’s a man famous for turning up at events and pretending that he has either mislaid his speech or hadn’t expected to deliver one. He starts his speech, appears to lose the thread of his argument, before rebounding to a triumphant finish. This week’s appearance at the CBI was no such joke. Indeed, his poor performance, punctuated by a now infamous meander into how wonderful Peppa Pig World is, has led to perhaps the biggest crisis in his leadership to date. Indeed, his spokesperson was forced to deny that the PM is unwell, or indeed lost his grip on Wednesday.
Renowned as a Teflon politician, on whom no indiscretion would stick for long, in recent weeks it’s become increasingly apparent that this Prime Minister can no longer use his wits to get him out of a crisis. Combined with controversies around his plans for social care and defence of Owen Paterson, any sparkle that remained is fading fast, even amongst MPs he would once have considered allies.
But none, perhaps, more concerning than his own Chancellor. Rishi Sunak’s allies have this week been briefing about his alleged exasperation with the Prime Minister, believing that his lack of professionalism is costing them in the polls. Of particular frustration, however, has been the fallout from Liam Booth-Smith, Sunak’s chief of staff, being accused of briefing that there was “a lot of concern in the building about the PM”. With senior figures in No 10 now understood to be “gunning for him”.
Dependent on how the briefing war between No.10 and 11 plays out, Sunak may have to make a decision as to how much he values his adviser. Remember, his predecessor Sajid Javid resigned in protest at being told by then-all powerful Downing Street svengali Dominic Cummings that he had to get rid of his own advisers, perceived as being disloyal to the Prime Minister, and come under the control of No.10. Javid decided to go, as opposed to being dictated to by No.10 about who he chose to surround himself with.
Sunak was chosen as Javid’s replacement in large part because he was seen as being young and amenable. But having spent the pandemic becoming one of the most popular member of the Government, this Chancellor now wields more power than No.10 had perhaps ever intended. With enemies piling up on the backbenches, and an increasingly disgruntled Chancellor – a bad speech won’t bring this Prime Minister down, but increasingly concerning rebellion from all ranks could come to overwhelm his premiership if he’s not careful.