Chancellor Rishi Sunak shows political naivety in bruising week - Bernard Ingham

When I read that Chancellor Rishi Sunak has a photo of a predecessor, Nigel Lawson, on his desk, I nearly had a fit.

My reaction was a passable imitation of Margaret Thatcher’s expostulation when she learned President Reagan had offered to give up nuclear weapons: “Has the man gone mad?”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Nigel Lawson was a clever chap.

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Some would say too clever by half, certainly for his own good. But he did good work.

Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty.

First, as Energy Secretary, he ensured that our power stations were overflowing with fuel before the inevitable miners’ strike in 1984.

On his watch inflation fell to 3.4 per cent in 1986 from a peak of 18 per cent in 1980, though, to be fair, his predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Howe did the heavy work and took the blows to get there.

Lawson is then credited with the Big Bang that de-regulated and strengthened the City of London.

And he certainly was tax cutter in his 1986-87 budgets.

In fact, some Tories felt he had gone too far too quickly, thereby impairing control of inflation.

It was at this point that he began to exhibit signs that he wanted to run the economy without let or hindrance from No 10.

Mrs Thatcher had to point out that she was the First Lord of the Treasury and had a plaque on the door of No 10 to prove it.

This did not stop him going his own road and shadowing the D-mark at three D-marks to the pound.

Mrs Thatcher only discovered this when a Financial Times interview team produced a graph.

Things were never the same again between the two.

They went from bad to worse when he and Howe threatened to resign if she did not give a date for entry into the European Exchange Rate mechanism at the Madrid EC summit in 1989.

She didn’t and they did not resign until a year later by which time the damage had been done. By 1990 inflation was running at 9.5 per cent and bank rate at 13.8 per cent.

And we all know what happened to our membership of the ERM which Mrs Thatcher was forced to join when she ran out of options.

It blew up in our faces on Black Wednesday in 1992.

In practice, Lawson created the conditions for the Tory Europhiles and Wets to ditch her.

I have gone to some lengths to examine the credentials of Mr Sunak’s evident tax-cutting hero because they expose his political naivety.

Lawson is altogether too complex an animal for any sensible Chancellor to adopt him as his pin-up boy.

That photograph might even be seen as provocative in No 10 given the tensions at the best of times between PM and Chancellor. Now over the past week Mr Sunak has revealed more of his political naivety with the revelations that his rich Indian wife had non-domicile tax status and that they carried a Green Card entitling them to live in the USA.

So far as I know the Sunaks have done nothing illegal but their “optics”, as they are now described, don’t bear examination.

What does it look like when a rich Chancellor and his wife with four mansions are rolling in it while he imposes tax increases on the public already faced with a cost of living crisis?

I am afraid that one of the besetting sins of Boris Johnson’s Government is to ignore the impact on public opinion of its actions – or inactions.

Which brings me to another reality.

Mr Sunak was never going to be the darling of the nation or his party in the £400bn debt aftermath of the pandemic – and certainly not if he did his duty in trying to get the economy back on an even keel.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified his financial problems and he faces one of the toughest rescue jobs we have seen in the last 75 years.

If ever we needed a successful Chancellor it is now.

Yet through naivety or neglect his leaky critics or enemies have damaged him.

Let’s hope that some good will come of an inquiry into the Sunak family’s finances, not least by providing a template for all would-be Ministers to keep them out of trouble.

In the meantime, Mr Sunak would do well to keep his head down and concentrate on his fearsome task of restoring the nation’s finances.

It would help if Mr Lawson’s photo no longer sat on his desk.

Sir Bernard Ingham was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary. He was born in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire.