Rise and fall of a creep

The fiasco over his wife’s non-dom status and now a fixed-penalty notice have sunk Rishi Sunak’s prime ministerial ambitions. Paul Demarty is amused

The return of ‘Partygate’ to the front pages - after a month or two when, for all its contemporary relevance, it felt almost as if it were an episode from Sumerian history - casts an interesting light on the escalating tensions between 10 and 11 Downing Street.

On April 12, the news broke that both Boris Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were to be issued with fixed-penalty notices for violating lockdown rules at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Momentarily, the war in Ukraine - which may be the greatest favour anyone has ever done for Johnson - was bumped off the top of news websites to make way for the various piously shocked reactions.

At the end of last year and beginning of this, it was revealed - in a steady drip-drip of leaks - that, at a time when ordinary Joes like you and me were forbidden even the most modest social engagements in the interests of controlling the spread of Covid-19, the prime minister and his staff had several parties in the garden of 10 Downing Street. The optics, needless to say, were not good, and before long, there was an inquiry led by bureaucrat Sue Gray, and various Metropolitan Police investigations. Now the cops have made Johnson the first sitting prime minister to fall foul of the criminal law, and thrown the chancellor in for good measure.

The fines - topping out at £50 apiece - are unlikely to trouble Johnson, let alone the now famously deep-pocketed Sunak. And, so long as the wartime atmosphere persists, Tories will be shy of unseating the PM. Roger Gale, a foe of Johnson, said: “I am not prepared to give Vladimir Putin the comfort of thinking that we are about to unseat the prime minister of the United Kingdom and destabilise the coalition against Putin”. Similar stuff came from Andrew Bridgen, who had already sent his letter demanding a vote of confidence earlier this year. It is, however, an uncomfortable reminder to the Tories that their great saviour has a rather inconsistent command of his common touch. Opinion polls continue to put Labour consistently ahead of the Tories, though the lead tightened during the Ukraine crisis.

More problems

We should not forget Sunak, however, since this is not even his first scandal this month.

Plucked from obscurity by Boris Johnson to effectively the highest political office in the land short of the premiership itself, Sunak distinguished himself from the rest of Johnson’s crony cabinet by having more than a quarter of an idea what the hell he was doing, even if the times ended up demanding something else from him, apart from the Thatcherite asset-stripping he plainly prefers to get on with at the earliest opportunity. His errors are those from the point of view of elementary human dignity, like the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme that successfully kick-started the Covid-19 pandemic all over again; they are not errors from the point of view of cannibalistic Tory principle.

Alas, the chaos of the last few years - Brexit, Covid-19, global gas shortages and now economic warfare with Russia - finally caught up with him. Gordon Brown quipped, at the height of his regard in the bourgeois media, that there were two kinds of chancellor: bad ones, and those who got out in time. Sunak’s department now confronts a spiralling cost of living, with huge spikes in energy prices coinciding with high inflation in ordinary supermarket goods (putting a new spin on the old choice, frequently faced by the poor, between heating and eating - how about neither?).

His laughably timid response to this crisis already had him on the ropes; but then came a series of leaks about his family finances. The bulk of the Sunaks’ fortune comes from Rishi’s wife, Akshata Murthy; she is the heiress of the owners of Infosys, one of the biggest IT outsourcing firms in the world. Not a bad catch for our dishy Rishi - but he is hardly the first politician to marry into money. The problem is that, as it turns out, Murthy paid for non-domiciled status, which allowed her to dodge something like £20 million in British taxes for a modest investment of £30,000.

This is not a good look for a man whose most recent major political decision was essentially to shift large parts of the national insurance burden from businesses to employees. But inevitably he was slow to accept there was a problem, rebuffing enquiries from journalists on the basis that his wife’s financial affairs were none of anyone’s business, that the pair were victims of a “political hit job”. This went down like the proverbial shit sandwich (now retailing for 50p more than last week in your local Pret a Manger), and - after a storm of controversy - Murthy announced that she would condescend to pay taxes like the little people, because she “didn’t want the issue to be a distraction for my husband”. A most noble motive for paying taxes, compared to the rest of us, who merely do it out of fear of being thrown in jail … not a prospect ever likely to darken the mood of an Akshata Murthy.


Watching this creep suffer is entertainment enough, but our thoughts must turn to the key mystery: who was leaking this stuff? We do not know yet (Whitehall investigations are ongoing), but we may advance a hypothesis. And for that, we’ll have to go back to Partygate.

As that crisis deepened, Boris Johnson’s response went through the usual cycle: first denial; then attempts to claim it was no big deal (after all, the staff at number 10 had been working so very hard … ); then increasingly ludicrous attempts at deflection. Belatedly, the PM noticed he needed a PR strategy that looked farther ahead than that day’s PMQs. He struck a fantastically implausible penitent pose, and secretly prepared ‘Operation Red Meat’ - a programme of cynical culture-war provocations to recover the Tories’ poll lead and prevent further defections from ‘Red Wall’ constituencies to Labour.

As Johnson’s trouble mounted, Tory minds - as is their wont - turned to defenestration. Perhaps his premiership was unsalvageable after all. The question then posed itself - who next? Who could replace the party’s great blonde hope? We can safely assume that Matt Hancock was not in the running. But Sunak perhaps was.

But then a real ‘operation red meat’ was started - the ‘special military operation’ of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. The demands of the hour were clear: vigorous, jingoistic bloviations from morning till night, and total lockstep subservience to the interests of the US state department. Nobody better for that role than Boris, jiggling the jowls of his pound-shop Churchill mask. Nothing could hope to penetrate the most total blanket of media unanimity in living memory, never mind some petty squabbles over who passed out drunk in whose garden in Whitehall. Not, that is, until the rozzers came knocking on the door of Number 10.

Sunak was suspiciously unavailable to do his duty and defend the indefensible in the national media during the height of Partygate. At roughly the same time, meanwhile, several flagship ‘red Tory’ policies favoured by Johnson’s electoral machine back in 2019 hit the buffers - most notably the scaling back of the projected HS2 railway line in a way that made a mockery of the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda. Johnson’s allies briefed friendly journalists to the effect that Sunak was to blame for all this, which may be true; alternatively, it could be merely evidence that the knives were already out for someone seen as a major potential rival.

We cannot know that Johnson’s people are behind this, of course: it may be some metropolitan liberal remainer in the bowels of Whitehall, or someone completely out of left field. The prime minister’s minions, however, provide the most immediately satisfying answer to the question, cui bono? The truth is that the ranks of prominent Tories are rather empty of likely replacements: Sunak, Liz Truss maybe (it is a good time to be foreign secretary, and nibble at the edges of someone else’s war in the hope of reflected glory). With Sunak floundering, the prospect of offloading Boris is even less enticing to nervous Tory MPs.

What next?

The return of Partygate to popular consciousness comes at a bad time for the Tories - what with the price of a loaf of bread and a gallon of petrol soaring and, most pertinently, local elections coming up on May 5. The fact that the new wave of scandal has taken in both the PM and his most serious rival, however, makes things a little less predictable.

In the short term, both men are safe. We have discussed Johnson’s prospects above. In principle, Sunak would be easier to offload - he is, after all, not the prime minister; he has had a torrid spring already; and so on. Yet could Boris’s people really sell it to the rest of the Tories, when they are so obviously embroiled in the same scandal?

But, longer term, there is the prospect of greater instability. Johnson cannot hide under Vladimir Putin’s skirts forever; as the Ukraine war takes its course, either to a ceasefire of some sort or a protracted guerrilla struggle and counterinsurgency, or some other awful outcome, it will become impossible to defer domestic politics any longer. A truly bad outing on May 5, above and beyond the usual chastening received by governing parties in mid-term polls, may be enough to cause a crisis of leadership that could threaten Johnson for real.

In any case, this all ought to put paid to talk of ‘levelling up’ for good. It is, as always, hard to tell how much Johnson believed his own sales pitch, but the MPs returned from deindustrialised ‘red wall’ seats certainly did. On the other hand, Sunak - a repellent City Thatcherite of the old school - certainly did not. Somehow, the promise of ‘Red Toryism’ always remains unfulfilled - from Ruskin, through Chamberlain, to Phillip Blond and Nick Timothy; somehow, the likes of Sunak find a way to ensure their fathers-in-law make out just fine, and the rest of us get battered by the forces of the world economy.

What we meet in the end is the central lie of Tory (and even ‘leftwing’) Brexitism - that the reason Britain is industrially emasculated lies across the channel. In truth, as Mike Macnair has argued over the years, there is a natural lifecycle to imperial hegemony, which ends with the total domination of finance capital.

Whether or not Sunak survives, he - and the others who see the post-Brexit ‘sunlit uplands’ as a matter of completing Thatcher’s revolution and turning Britain into an unassailable offshore financial centre, with tax rates comparable to the Virgin Islands - are riding the wave of British history. Diverting it from its present course poses the question of international political coordination.