Can Chancellor Rishi Sunak cling on as top dog for the top job as he faces big test over tax-rise Budget?
THERE’S an old saying in politics: If you want a friend, get a dog.
Perhaps that’s why Rishi Sunak bought a puppy, knowing he might soon be short of mates.
One of the most remarkable things about the Chancellor is the dizzy heights he reached without making enemies.
Until recently, it was hard to find anyone at Westminster with a bad word to say about him.
He made it to the top seemingly without upsetting anyone, an extraordinary feat for a politician.
As far as Parliamentary colleagues were concerned, that was his unique selling point: He was a genuinely nice guy.
Unlike Machiavellian George Osborne, he never stabbed anyone in the back.
No Chancellor stays popular for long, and a whispering campaign is under way against the man at the Treasury.
For the time being it’s low key, but the snakes are gathering in the grass and it won’t be long before they bite.
In just ten days, Sunak will present his Budget to the nation.
The UK already has the highest tax burden in peacetime, but behind the scenes at the Treasury he’s busy cooking up more hikes.
He might as well be spraying rubber bullets at the Tory party. They’re going to hate it.
Many MPs and activists are still seething over his election manifesto pledge-busting National Insurance rise.
The last thing they want is more like that.
Naturally, Sunak will focus on the positives in his statement, trumpeting that the UK has the fastest growth forecast of any G7 country this year and the public coffers were not hit as hard by the pandemic as many feared.
Of course he’ll take the credit, saying his flagship furlough scheme, business loans and programmes such as Kick Start for young people on universal credit saved millions of livelihoods and helped the country bounce back.
And it’s true he has much to be proud of.
Despite the worst economic contraction on record, the shops are not all boarded up, the streets are not overrun with the homeless and hungry, and Britain is on its feet again.
Pig farmers are squealing and we need more HGV drivers, but Greggs the baker has yet to run out of sausage rolls and pies.
But here’s the bigger picture: To avoid total economic meltdown, Sunak didn’t just max out the national credit card, he melted it, borrowing more money than at any time since the Second World War.
For more than a year, he was like a late-night online shopper wired on Red Bull, adding everything to the shopping cart, then bunging it on Klarna.
Now he has to tell us exactly how much his spending spree cost, and what portion of the bill we need to pay.
It’s not just the Budget Sunak is agonising over, but also his forthcoming Spending Review, which sets out how much cash Cabinet colleagues have for the next three years.
Some are going to be very disappointed with their settlements.
All of this plays into Sunak’s secret worry: Whether he’s still the heir apparent to Boris Johnson.
For the past 18 months the Chancellor has revelled in his status as hot favourite to succeed the Prime Minister.
But he faces growing competition from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the new darling of the Right.
And in his quest for the top job, he’s beginning to make strategic mistakes.
He fell foul of his Cabinet colleague Kwasi Kwarteng over energy company bail-outs.
Downing Street sided with the charismatic Business Secretary, who did not take kindly to being accused of making things up.
For the first time in his political career, the Chancellor was left with egg on his face.
Kwarteng is not the only one he’s upset.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was fuming when he tried to take credit for extra money for the Armed Forces, cash Wallace had fought to secure.
Sunak is said to have erased the party logo from a press release announcing the extra cash, and replaced it with a big fat RS — his trademark swirly signature.
Meanwhile, mischief makers are beginning to delight in standing him next to tall MPs in photographs, privately joking that the diminutive 5ft 7in Chancellor looks like a figure out of “The Borrowers”.
Given the scale of national debt, it’s a characterisation that might stick.
So spare a thought for this ferociously hard-working and decent doctor’s son as he comes to terms with his loss of status as Westminster’s top dog.
He’s in for a rough few weeks.
At least he can count on his new red Labrador retriever Nova to stay loyal.
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