Analysis: Rishi Sunak must walk tightrope to avoid becoming next Nick Clegg

Watching the Chancellor Rishi Sunak make his conference speech yesterday, it was hard not to be reminded of Nick Clegg.

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 7:00 am
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Picture: Leon Neal/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Picture: Leon Neal/PA Wire

The former Liberal Democrat leader exploded into popularity during the 2010 election debates, speaking with a clarity and sense of empathy that seemed entirely absent from his rivals.

His performance sparked an “I agree with Nick” meme and lofty expectations of the now Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications that he has continued to disappoint on.

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Mr Sunak is the latest politician to cut through with the public, endearing himself with the simple promise of “whatever it takes”, a ready-for-headlines soundbite he delivered as naturally as breathing.

Any politician can have good scriptwriters, but the Chancellor is the only member of the Cabinet who can say “putting our arms around every single worker” without it sounding like a focus-grouped slogan.

His speeches are never just announcements or platitudes, they stray into his own personal experiences of racism, or sharing stories of the families he’s met who drive him to be better.

Just eight months after replacing Sajid Javid, Mr Sunak has become Britain’s most popular politician, according to YouGov. His face and name have been plastered over adoring pubs and restaurants.

He has made spending cool, funded 30 per cent of the UK’s workforce with the £35.4 billion furlough scheme, made their meals cheaper with the “Eat Out to Help out” restaurant discount, and been lavished with praise by Tory MPs along the way.

Mr Sunak is a Conservative who can pose for photo ops with the TUC.

Believed to be the richest MP, he is married to an Indian billionaire’s daughter, and was once a banker for Goldman Sachs and two hedge funds.

Despite this, he has earned the nickname “Dishy Rishi”, and is more likely to be a target for thirst on Twitter than blasted for his background. We are in uncharted territory.

His popularity is not purely for his spending and charm, but also his views.

Tory MPs consider him less interventionist than Mr Johnson, with some seeing him as the modern libertarian the party has been crying out for.

It was Mr Sunak’s schemes that coaxed the public out of their houses in the first days after lockdown. The PM is occasionally good on the stump, but with Mr Sunak voters get detail as well as the rhetoric.

Frankly, the sense of adulation can all get a little Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury, but Mr Sunak is still seen by Tory MPs as the perfect replacement for a struggling Boris Johnson, perhaps even before the next election.

However Conservative insiders insist they work as a team, saying “the PM deserves a loyal and highly capable Chancellor and that’s exactly what he has in Rishi Sunak”.

Of course Mr Sunak doesn’t want it, insisting he thinks Mr Johnson is doing a great job.

Asked directly, he said: “Definitely not, seeing what the PM has to deal with. This is a job hard enough for me.”

That job being “hard enough” is the key point.

It’s easy to be loved when you’re turning on the spending taps, but as George Osborne found out, austerity follows you around forever.

Yesterday Mr Sunak spoke of a “sacred responsibility” to “balance the books”, stressed the importance of “strong public finances” and dismissed the notion of borrowing “our way out of any hole”.

He continued to emphasise how much the Tory party care, how this Government is working to make sure nobody is left behind, but in a policy-light speech it was hard to see it as anything but a greatest hits compilation.

Mr Sunak may be polling high now, but it’s much easier to be loved when you’re delivering good news.

The furlough scheme is over, and while the Chancellor announced its replacement, the job support scheme, to great fanfare, there’s no hiding the fact it’s less money for fewer people.

Running for six months, it fails to include the three million self-employed not covered by any of the existing measures.

The prominent think-tank the Resolution Foundation warned up to six million poor families could be £1,000 worse under the plans, with a "major squeeze" on living standards.

Once the spending stops, the public will not forget who they have been told is responsible.

Therein lies the Nick Clegg dilemma.

Mr Sunak has enjoyed a meteoric rise, but much like the support scheme leaves people facing a cliff edge in April 2021, so too will the Chancellor.

Listening to Mr Sunak justify turning off the spending taps as a “sacred duty” to future generations was understandable, but it ignores the fact that current generations not only need to eat, but they also vote.

Mr Clegg was immensely popular and rode a wave of adulation to become deputy prime minister, but eventually reality bites.

The former Lib Dem leader was a great communicator, but struggled to justify why he went against his own views to slash public spending. Mr Sunak may face the same dilemma with any coming tax rises and cuts of his own.

For many, the working assumption is not if Mr Sunak will become PM, but rather when.

Conveying why cuts were made left Mr Obsorne and David Cameron deeply unpopular with parts of the population, but the base stood by them and they won a majority.

Justifying what comes next will be key if Mr Sunak is to be a Prime Minister, rather than a Clegg.

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