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Politics – Opinion

Turning things around

It’s been quite the few weeks for Rishi Sunak.

Fined for breaking lockdown rules he helped create, and with his wife’s tax affairs jarring markedly against his position as the man charged with dragging the UK out of a cost of living crisis, the Chancellor has seen his polished exterior become tarnished.

And for a man seen by many as the next in line for the Tory leadership and, by association, the role of Prime Minister, it’s been a hugely damaging period.

Chief party cheerleaders Michael Fabricant and Jacob Rees-Mogg, among others – including Ashfield and Eastwood MP Lee Anderson, who threw his toys out of the pram in a rant, ironically, in a television interview over the ‘vulture’ media attacking the Government – have done their best to quell discontent, trotting out the usual lines from Conservative communications HQ about moving on and the great work delivered by the Government – rather than NHS staff and medical development organisations – on COVID-19.

But the Chancellor needs a lot more than words from political figures of fun, and others whipped into line, to restore his reputation with the electorate.

A reputation on the line

Bumped and buffeted by a lockdown fine and the fall-out from revelations of his wife’s tax status, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s well-oiled PR machine has gasped and spluttered in recent weeks. Here, Steven Hugill looks at what it means for the political aspirations of a man who, up until just a few weeks ago, was the obvious choice to become the Conservatives’ next leader.

Rishi Sunak is pretty good at maximising the numbers.

No, I’m not referring to his wife’s non-domicile status, I’m talking about his height.

Standing all of five foot six inches tall, the Chancellor apparently employs tailors’ tricks to amplify his frame.

(Have a look the next time you see him in a suit, and how his trousers sit above his shoes to create a sense of greater stature).

Recently, though, it’s his political ambitions, rather than Savile Row’s finest cloth, that have been cut down to size.

For so long he was the heir apparent to the Tory throne, the politically savvy one in an otherwise barren Cabinet, the fiscally-focused straight man to Boris Johnson’s buffoonery and stage-managed theatrics.

He was too – according to some – the man who brought coolness to Downing Street for wearing white socks and sliders during a pre-Budget meeting, and for daring to venture near a hoody years after David Cameron’s infamous speech.

During his ascent to the upper echelons of power, the Richmond (North Yorkshire) MP was always assuringly smooth, both in his language and appearance. Indeed, a former colleague of mine on the local press beat once suggested to the Chancellor’s PR team – with the greatest of seriousness – to take him to Catterick Garrison military base, which sits within his constituency, and get him muddy on its assault course, such was his Teflon-like appearance.

And, a few years later, they did, though nothing changed – the Chancellor’s pristine white t-shirt blotted only by a hastily affixed name badge.

The last few weeks, however, have changed all that.

The Chancellor has gone out of fashion. 

His reputation has become sullied.

For so long clear of the political mud-slinging, some of it is now sticking to his expensive suits.

Stung by a ‘partygate’ fine for breaking lockdown rules he helped create, and revelations of wife Akshata Murty’s tax status, the Chancellor is having to take off his cufflinks, roll up his sleeves and deal with the dirty stuff.

And it’s proving pretty difficult to shift, as well as being incredibly uncomfortable.

For one, his pandemic penalty puts him on par with Boris Johnson, the man who once hid inside a giant fridge to avoid a live television interview when a milk delivery PR stunt turned sour; the man who toured Britain in a Brexit battle bus making frivolous financial claims about the EU and the NHS; the man who treated COVID-19 as a joke until he caught it.

And to be spoken of in the same breath is doing nothing for the Chancellor with voters, certainly not the great many who were denied seeing loved ones in their final hours as they abided by Government COVID-19 regulations.

His somewhat alarming response to his wife’s tax affairs has done him few favours, either.

The Conservatives overwhelmed Labour at the last general election because punters – quite rightly – saw little to no hope in a Jeremy Corbyn-led party.

They were, of course, helped by the many messages whipped up by advisors and support teams led by that other lockdown flouter Dominic Cummings.

The Tories, they said, were giving the honest, working people of the country the leg-up they so richly – and finally – deserved.

So to see the Chancellor embroiled in a row over taxes, which – although entirely legal – flew completely in the face of his role as the man charged with helping those with access to the very thinnest end of a wedge in the ongoing cost of living crisis, was quite something.

It was also bizarre to see his feverish fixation with nailing the source of a supposed leak of his wife’s financial outgoings play out across the front pages, particularly in the context of his previous defences of Government decisions to hand billions of pounds worth of controversial PPE contracts to private companies at the height of the pandemic.

Moreover, he didn’t help himself when he likened his situation to that of Will Smith in an interview shortly after the latter’s petulant antics at the Oscars.

There was one similarity that stood out, mind.

The actor previously portrayed Muhammad Ali – the king of the rope-a-dope tactic – and the Chancellor is equally now backed against the ring’s outer edges.

The difference, however, is that while Ali knew how to absorb blows, all while tiring out his opponent, the Chancellor is getting hit with some real haymakers.

And while he has many fellow MPs in his corner, patching up his reputation with metaphorical Vaseline and cotton swabs, the blood will continue to drip from his wounds for some time yet.

His reputation, of course, hasn’t entirely been shattered.

Last month, he returned to favourable ground in Darlington – the famous railway town that neighbours his constituency – where he is leading Government plans to create a new economic campus  (likely on the former footprint of a car dealership turned shabby car park) which will include a number of departments including the Treasury.

Part of the much-vaunted ‘levelling-up’ agenda, it’s a commitment that means he retains much credit in the bank, certainly on a local basis, and the knock-on benefits for Darlington and the wider region, if they come to fruition in their promised entirety, will provide a significant financial boost for the area.

But things tend to hang around in politics, voters have long memories, and the repairing of a reputation takes considerably longer than it does to lose it.

The Chancellor’s polished veneer has been stripped away.

And it’s going to take a hell of a campaign to restore it and to ensure his future political aspirations don’t end up like his trousers – at half-mast.