Chancellor Rishi Sunak has spoiled himself with tax issue - Andrew Vine

A BUSINESSMAN who lives and works in Rishi Sunak’s Richmond constituency summed up the mess the Chancellor has got himself into with admirable Yorkshire understatement when I talked to him at the weekend.

“Spoiled himself, hasn’t he?” he observed. Well yes, he has. That time- honoured expression levelled in our county for centuries at those who have damaged their own standing and reputation goes to the heart of Mr Sunak’s problems.

A politician who enjoyed high levels of trust – even admiration – as a consequence of his decisive action to safeguard businesses and jobs during the pandemic now appears slippery because of the furore over his wife’s tax affairs.

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Legal though it undoubtedly was for her not to pay UK tax on earnings from her family company based in India, it just didn’t sit well with the tens of millions of taxpayers who look at their payslips every month and rue how much they hand over to the Inland Revenue.

Rishi Sunak. Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP.

The announcement by Akshata Murty that she will now pay UK taxes on her overseas income was the only possible course of action, but the damage done to her husband’s reputation will not easily be repaired, especially after his several days of wriggling over the matter and complaining that his wife should not be the target of political attacks. Sorry, Mr Sunak, but that just didn’t wash. As the man responsible for a raft of tax rises that are going to make life harder for countless families, your own family’s financial affairs are fair game.

As with boozy parties in Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid lockdowns, this felt like one set of rules for those in charge and another for the rest of the country.

Until this blew up, the businessman I talked to was a fan of Mr Sunak. He felt that here was a politician in tune with the country, a man who could be trusted, unlike his boss next door in 10 Downing Street.

His trust in the Chancellor has been severely diminished, and there are bound to be many others who feel the same. Even amongst Conservative activists, Mr Sunak’s approval ratings have plummeted. That Mr Sunak should have got himself into such a bind somehow comes as a disappointment, because he seemed better than this.

In a Cabinet where there are serious questions over the calibre and character of some Ministers, he stands out for his level-headedness and apparent decency, as well as his intelligence.

During the worst days of the pandemic, the Chancellor was reportedly the only Minister able to forensically analyse and question the mathematical modelling of the course Covid might take, a vital factor in making political judgments on how to address it.

Yet what of his own political judgment? Even before the tax issue, Mr Sunak left himself open to derision with a ridiculous photo opportunity after his Spring Statement in which he was seen filling a small hatchback with petrol.

Oh, come off it, Chancellor. We all knew that isn’t what you drive, even before it emerged the car had been borrowed from a supermarket worker. It was a ham-fisted attempt to appear a man of the people, which backfired and undermined your credibility.

It is no secret that Mr Sunak is an independently wealthy man, thanks to a high-powered City career before he entered politics.

That’s good, and should not be resented by anyone rational. Nor was it ever likely to be resented that his wife is also wealthy in her own right, thanks to a family business built up by her father. That’s fine too, as long as she is perceived to be paying her fair share of taxes.

We need high achievers like Mr Sunak in politics. Their grasp of how business works from having been there and done it is at a premium in a Parliament where too many on all sides have never done anything other than climb the political ladder.

Proof of this is underlined by the fact that two of the most effective Cabinet Ministers, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi, also come from successful business backgrounds.

Quite how Mr Sunak bounces back from the events of the past week – or even if he is able to – is hard to see, as Labour continues to ferret away at the tax issue, which is bound to dog him for as long as he remains in office.

Referring himself to the Government’s ethics watchdog won’t change that, or sway a public that simply does not have any option over how much tax they pay.

At the turn of the year, with the Prime Minister up to his neck in scandal over lockdown parties and possibly about to be given the chop by his own MPs, the safe pair of hands next door at 11 Downing Street looked the favourite to take over the reins of power if the Government imploded.

Not any more. Mr Sunak’s constituent is spot on. He’s spoiled himself.

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