Saturday 9 April 2022

The Assassination of Rishi Sunak

Up until this last fortnight, Rishi Sunak had led a charmed political life. Gifted one of the safest Tory seats in the country, chose the right side of Brexit (at least where the Tory faithful were concerned), and without leaving a trace he was elevated to the Treasury and then, sorry Dominic Raab, the real office of the deputy Prime Minister: the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He made his name turning on the public spending taps, ensuring he went from complete unknown to the most popular politician in the country inside a month. His media friendly demeanour and soft focused press coverage ensured his legend built up, managing to escape sanction for Covid idiocies and then imposing National Insurance rises on everyone in receipt of a pay packet. Nice smooth ride you have there. It would be a pity if you ran out of road.

As fast as his name was made, he's gone from Dishy Rishi to something altogether more fishy in double quick time. The initial breach in the dam was standard hubristic politics. The Spring Statement offered practically nothing. With inflation outstripping wages, energy bills going through the proverbial, and the NI rise due Sunak ostentatiously put his hands up and said he could do nothing. Given the folk memories of recent years when government found cash to prop up the banks, or shovel money into the pockets of Tories and Tory cronies under the guise of Covid procurement (and while writing billions off as "unrecoverable"), the "there's no magic money tree" trick is old hat and can't dazzle the punters any more.

And then we had this week. Akshata Murty, the billionaire heir and Sunak's significant other saw the spotlight fall on her tax status. Turns out she paid £30k/year for nondom status and avoid millions in taxes, despite residing permanently in the UK with her husband and children. After a torturous day or two of camp Sunak and leading Tories saying family were off-limits for matters of public scrutiny. Actually no, as the Ministerial Code requires ministers to supply details of potential conflicts of interests involving themselves, spouses, and family members. Something Sunak failed to do. Therefore Murty's subsequently changing her tax status to make the story go away has doors and bolting horses all over it.

And there's more. Thanks to digging done by The Indy and Sky News, we learn that he has held a Green Card for a decade. Sunak has served over six years as a MP, a minister for three, and the Chancellor for 18 months while supposedly being a permanent resident of the United States - a matter that, were he not filthy stinking rich, would get normal people into hot water with the US authorities. Nor is it a good look on these shores, implying the Chancellor was holding it in reserve should new opportunities arise in, say, California where he likes to spend a lot of time. If this wasn't enough, Sunak is listed as a beneficiary of trusts registered in tax havens, and the Sunday Telegraph have splashed his involvement in blind trusts on its front page. Murky finances from the nation's chief accountant? Say it ain't so.

The politics of this are appalling for Sunak, and unless his political career spends the next two years on a boil wash his chances of leading the Tory party are about as good as mine. Overt hypocrisy and getting found out is profoundly damaging, as Boris Johnson found out to his cost earlier this year. To have the Chancellor pretend the cupboard is bare and so taxes have to go up, while his housefold has benefited from "tax efficiency" should destroy him. But this is the contemporary Tory party and the old rules of politics no longer apply. But why is this happening, and why are the details about Sunak apparently leaking from his own side? It's time to ask the 'who benefits?' question.

The first is his rival for the Tory crown, Liz Truss. Popular among the Tory ranks she's still not as widely known among the public as much as she'd like, and annoyingly for her it's defence secretary Ben Wallace who's had "the good war" re: Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Taking Sunak down a peg at least simplifies the situation, though the chances of her doing one of her opportunist photo opps, this time with a pile of tax returns, is probably out of the question. But by all accounts, the agents of Sunak's destruction appear to be too well informed to be her allies. Which leaves Downing Street.

Listening to the lobby hacks and the journos in the know, one of the reasons why Johnson's much-hyped levelling up efforts remain so much vapourware is because of Sunak's intransigence. Which is to be expected when the residents of Number 11 are as aligned to the interests of the City. Johnson hasn't overruled him because he can ill-afford a big row at the centre of government while PartyGate lurks in the long grass, and the Chancellor had strong support among the parliamentary party. These revelations, which not only show Sunak up for being tone deaf but also possessing a complete lack of sense, have destroyed this standing and making him what Johnson hoped he would be when the appointment was made: utterly dependent on him for his political fortunes. As such, all those little acts of rebellion, the coy signals he was in the running to replace Johnson are no longer possible. This, and the fact he's the new shit magnet definitively shifts negative coverage away from the Prime Minister and goes a distance to restoring his authority. Just what he needs if he cops a fine from the Met and he's fighting for his political life again.

These are good popcorn moments for labour movement people watching the drama from the outside. But rather than this affair being a squabble among elites, how Sunak's career has been ambushed and his survival is in the balance is because, in significant ways, the efforts the left made in the Corbyn period and after have shifted some aspects of politics in our direction. Even now, the Tories still can't have things all their own way.

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