Why Rishi Sunak snubbed Boris Johnson at PMQs with timely Devon trip as ‘partygate’ scandal grows – Tom Richmond

RISHI Sunak is not the first Chancellor to go AWOL when their Downing Street neighbour is in the fight of their political life.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been keeping his distance - literally - from the Prime Minister this week as pressure grows on Boris Johnson to resign.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been keeping his distance - literally - from the Prime Minister this week as pressure grows on Boris Johnson to resign.

Sir John Major famously blamed a painful wisdom tooth when Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was imploding in 1990 while Gordon Brown kept his distance from Tony Blair when it suited.

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And I’m none the wiser whether Sunak’s 220-mile trip to Ilfracombe on Wednesday – the day Boris Johnson made that apology at Prime Minister’s Questions over his presence at the Downing Street ‘bring your own booze’ party at the height of the first lockdown – was pre-planned or hastily arranged.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been keeping his distance - literally - from the Prime Minister this week as pressure grows on Boris Johnson to resign.

Yet, while Sunak effectively took social distancing to a new extreme by declaring, on social media, that he was “excited” to be in the Devon coastal town visiting a firm integral to the Covid vaccine fight, and presumably endearing himself with local MPs in the South West ahead of a looming leadership vote, it was a later tweet that sparked much intrigue.

As Cabinet Ministers either decided – or were arm-twisted and knee-capped by the Whips – to post supportive messages praising the PM for his Commons apology, and to appeal for patience while senior civil servant Sue Gray completes her investigations, Sunak, quite rightly, was more guarded.

Eventually the Richmond MP posted this: “I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanForJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation. The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”

Cue fury from some senior Tories – and the PM’s friends in the London media – who believe this lack of support was disloyal in the face of a later post by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pleading to “stand behind the Prime Minister 100 per cent”. I could not disagree more vehemently.

In happier times - Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak visit a brewery after the Budget last October.

Unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues, Sunak is clearly unwilling to pre-judge the inquiry as Gray, the permanent secretary at the so-called Department of Levelling Up, effectively becomes the most powerful person in Britain at this time.

She’s not to be taken lightly. She headed the so-called Plebgate inquiry in 2012 after Andrew Mitchell, the then chief whip, was accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” during a dispute in Downing Street. He resigned and his reputation never fully recovered.

Gray’s subsequent investigation into Theresa May’s deputy Damian Green, one of the premier’s most trusted lieutenants, ultimately led to his forced resignation in 2017 after she found he had lied about pornography on his Commons computer.

But I also suspect that the Chancellor – a public servant accustomed to dealing with budget deficits – is deeply embarrassed by the growing deficit of trust as his neighbour, and supposedly his friend, becomes increasingly economical with the truth in order to save his career.

In happier times - Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak visit a brewery after the Budget last October.

And, given that the issue of trust, integrity and probity will be fundamental when the Tories do hold a leadership contest, Rishi Sunak’s caution this week may have been the best political calculation of all as the ‘partygate’ scandal becomes more insulting by the day.

GRANT Shapps has been one of the few Cabinet Ministers who has shown a willingness to face the media, and defend the indefensible, when Boris Johnson has been facing the country’s full fury over dishonesty, scandal or impropriety (delete as appropriate).

Yet it spoke volumes that the Transport Secretary did not do so on Wednesday in the wake of ‘partygate’ allegations – and on the day Shapps, one of the first to back Johnson’s leadership bid in 2019, had a good news story to report after deciding to ‘pause’ the rollout of smart motorways following much criticism, not least by this newspaper, about their safety.

Telling.

I CAN only assume that Paymaster General Michael Ellis – a former Solicitor General – has been promised a knighthood after he spent more than an hour in Parliament on Tuesday dodging scores of questions about Boris Johnson’s presence at Downing Street parties in lockdown.

He wouldn’t even say whether he’d been briefed by PM. Meanwhile Tory backbencher Suzanne Webb is an early contender for the ‘toady of the year’ award after saying Parliament’s time “would be better spent debating how we build back better and level up” rather than lockdown lawbreaking.

BACK in the real world, there’s growing consternation at how NHS appointments in Leeds – they’re still sent out by letter rather than email or text – are stuck in the mail system undelivered because of the number of posties off sick with Covid and other ailments.

As last orders prepare to be called on Boris Johnson’s premiership, it is the ‘last post’ that is the preoccupation for many as Britain’s public services become more fragile by the hour and how the ‘partygate’ scandal is deflecting attention away from the Covid recovery and cost of living crisis.

FINALLY England captain Joe Root must be a protégé of the Boris Johnson school of political spin and truthfulness after praising the courage of his team in securing a last ball draw against Australia in, arguably, the most one-sided Ashes series of all.

Sorry Joe, there’s no cause for celebration. Meanwhile I’m still stumped by the phraseology of Eleanor Oldroyd – the vague and boring BBC radio presenter sent to Australia to provide updates on the Test series – when she described how England escaped with a draw thanks to “two non-batters” at the crease.

That’s not cricket, is it?

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