Boris Johnson’s office denies tension with Rishi Sunak as Tory unrest builds

Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, left, and Rishi Sunak, U.K. chancellor of the exchequer, right, arrive for a weekly meeting of cabinet ministers in London on Oct. 13, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chris J. Ratcliffe.

Boris Johnson’s office rejected newspaper reports of a rift between the U.K. prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, with the government still on the back foot over recent missteps and U-turns.

The premier’s press secretary told reporters at a regular briefing Wednesday the entire government is focused on delivering an “ambitious agenda.” Asked if Johnson’s office is working well with the Treasury, they replied: “Yes.”

But the pushback is unlikely to ease disquiet among Conservative members of Parliament over a string of controversial decisions by the premier in recent weeks, with the reports of squabbling at the top of the government exacerbating a sense that Johnson is finding it harder to control his party.

The latest crisis was triggered when the BBC on Monday cited a “senior Downing Street source” as saying top officials have serious concerns about Johnson’s recent performance. The report came hours after Johnson had given a haphazard and rambling speech to Britain’s biggest business lobby, in which he compared himself to Moses, lost his place and delivered a lengthy anecdote about his visit to the children’s theme park Peppa Pig World.

On Tuesday, Johnson’s spokesman denied there was an investigation into the source of the leak, which the British media had dubbed the “chatty pig” in reference to the prime minister’s widely ridiculed speech.

Then on Wednesday, newspapers including the Daily Mail cited officials it didn’t identify pointing the finger at Sunak’s team. The Guardian newspaper also reported tensions at the Treasury at the way the government had handled recent spending announcements on social care and railways.

A spokesperson for the chancellor declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg.

Sunak has previously denied reports that the two do not see eye to eye, which were based on the prime minister’s love of big infrastructure projects not suiting a chancellor seen as a traditional low-tax Conservative. They presented a united front at the recent annual conference, and Sunak’s expansive budget last month was welcomed by Johnson supporters in the party.

But the government is again in damage limitation mode, with Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab sent on the morning media round to defend Johnson. He attributed the prime minister’s speech to his “tiggerish” characteristics and dismissed reports that some Tory MPs have sent letters of no confidence in Johnson as “Westminster tittle-tattle.”

A total of 54 Tory MPs would need to do so to trigger a no-confidence vote, and there’s no sign yet that enough see the need for a change of leadership.

Even so, Johnson has been struggling to reassert his authority ever since he blocked Parliament’s suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for lobbying violations three weeks ago. That sparked an outcry, pitting many of his own MPs against each other, and the government announced a U-turn the next day.

Johnson’s eventual mea culpa last week — telling MPs privately that he’d taken his eye off the road and driven the car into a ditch over Paterson — was an attempt to draw a line under the row and move on.

But he then angered some northern MPs when he announced a scaled-back railway program, which will still cost the government 96 billion pounds ($128 billion) but didn’t deliver in full on the government’s promise.

On another chaotic day in Parliament on Monday, he suffered a significant Tory backlash over a last-minute funding change to his flagship plan to overhaul social care.

Meanwhile opposition parties are making the most of the turbulence. The Labour Party has narrowed the gap with the Tories in opinion polls, while there’s a sense in Westminster that the shine has come off Johnson’s leadership.

“Who knows if he will make it to the next election, but if he does, how does anyone expect to take him and his promises seriously?” Labour leader Keir Starmer asked during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.



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