ANDREW PIERCE: Whether the Chancellor likes it or not, embittered Cummings is acting as his attack dog
On Sunday night, over a cup of tea – nothing stronger for this Peloton-riding teetotaller – Rishi Sunak was deep in talks with Boris Johnson.
The two most powerful men in the country were discussing plans to help families deal with soaring fuel prices, a crisis set to worsen in the weeks ahead. The mood, someone with knowledge of the meeting tells me, was warm and convivial – not least because opinion polls were then showing the Tories closing in on Labour’s lead.
Boris and Rishi have enjoyed a healthy working relationship. But now their bonhomie has cooled.
Boris and Rishi have enjoyed a healthy working relationship. But now their bonhomie has cooled
Could it be that Dominic Cummings, Boris’s maverick ex-consigliere – who was sacked in 2020 after losing a power struggle with Carrie – is acting as an unlicensed and anonymous ‘attack dog’ for the Chancellor?
When details emerged on Monday of Downing Street’s now-infamous ‘bring your own booze’ party in May 2020, Boris soon slumped to his worst ever rating as prime minister.
Other Cabinet members stood up to back him. On Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, the PM made a grovelling apology flanked by his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Deputy PM Dominic Raab. Yet on that crucial day, Sunak vanished – causing the PM’s allies to question the loyalty of this tirelessly ambitious Chancellor, still only 41.
On social media – where he regularly posts flattering pictures of himself – he avoided the drama. Nor did he trouble the airwaves as the media’s clamour grew. In fact, Sunak was 225 miles away in Devon at an event with a local MP.
Hours later, Sunak finally met Boris at No 10 for a pre-arranged appointment. The mood was strained. Under pressure from Boris’s team to support the PM publicly, the Chancellor tweeted: ‘The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while [senior civil servant] Sue Gray carries out her inquiry.’
In comparison to the fulsome expressions of praise from Boris’s most loyal allies – not least Liz Truss – this tepid statement rang alarm bells at No 10.
‘Some of us remembered the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990,’ one Boris ally tells me. ‘When she failed to win enough votes to carry the first leadership ballot, where was her chancellor John Major? At his constituency having his wisdom teeth looked at. Rishi’s silence, like Major’s, is an issue.’
In any crisis, the Opposition will do all it can to undermine the Government. That is why party unity is so crucial.
It may be that the Chancellor’s disappearing act this week fails to endear him to the Tory faithful who will determine his future in the party.
Sunak’s attempts to woo them could hardly be more obvious. In the past six weeks alone, he has visited no fewer than six Tory seats across the country.
For now, at least, this charm offensive – however discomfiting it must be for the Prime Minister – is working. A YouGov poll of Tory members puts Sunak ahead of Truss as the favourite to be next leader on 33 per cent compared to her 25 per cent.
But questions are being asked about his loyalty and whether Brand Rishi is his true priority.
Meanwhile, a dark theory is swirling through Westminster.
More from Andrew Pierce for the Daily Mail…
Could it be that Dominic Cummings, Boris’s maverick ex-consigliere – who was sacked in 2020 after losing a power struggle with Carrie – is acting as an unlicensed and anonymous ‘attack dog’ for the Chancellor? Cummings, 50, has spent a year throwing grenades from the sidelines, trying to destroy his old boss. He first mentioned Downing Street’s boozy garden party on his own blog last Friday, four days before the story broke.
Did the man David Cameron called a ‘career psychopath’ leak the damaging email?
Cummings and Sunak first clicked when Boris became Tory leader in 2019. Both Oxford-educated, they were committed Brexiteers. ‘Dom thought Rishi was hugely impressive and clever from the word go,’ says a senior Tory source. ‘He decided early on he was No 10 material – and still thinks that.’
Cummings boasts he tricked Boris into firing the ‘bog standard’ Sajid Javid (now the Health Secretary) as chancellor after engineering a row over advisers. Yet there may be more than mere professional admiration here.
Sunak is also close to a number of known and suspected former Cummings allies, including Liam Booth-Smith – the Chancellor’s leather jacket sporting chief of staff. He runs the ‘joint unit’ set up by Cummings between Nos 10 and 11, which is now the province of the Treasury. Then there is Nerissa Chesterfield, Sunak’s adviser, who worked with Cummings at the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings also installed Michael Webb as another key Treasury adviser – one of the famous ‘weirdos and misfits’ he sought to shake up a supposedly staid government operation. Alex Hickman is another one. He first encountered Cummings in the 1990s at anti-Euro pressure group Business for Sterling.
Last night, one Boris sympathiser raged: ‘Cummings is the Chancellor’s unauthorised assassin. Dom doesn’t do subtle. He has never criticised Rishi, who has been involved in all the big decisions of the past two years.’
But my source warns: ‘How long before Cummings turns his poison on the Chancellor if he doesn’t get his way?’
A source close to No 11 emphatically denies there is any collusion between the two men, saying: ‘The Chancellor hasn’t spoken to Cummings since he left Downing Street. No one who works for the Chancellor has any contact with Cummings.’
Whatever the truth, the Chancellor’s obvious reluctance to ‘build back Boris’ this week has raised eyebrows.
‘He’s gone out of the starting blocks far too soon,’ one MP tells me. Back in November, the Treasury had to deny any involvement in the aftermath of Boris’s shambolic speech to the CBI, where the PM lost his place for more than 20 seconds and bizarrely referenced the children’s cartoon character Peppa Pig.
After this event, a ‘senior Downing Street source’ told the BBC there was ‘a lot of concern inside the building about the PM’.
Downing Street, of course, includes both the PM’s office and the Chancellor’s, leading to claims Team Rishi might have been behind the briefing.
Another anonymous source then threw gelignite over the scandal by telling a newspaper that Sunak was unhappy with Boris. Rishi ‘keeps being hit by the maelstrom of chaos next door’ said the source, as a Whitehall probe was launched to catch the so-called ‘Chatty Pig’ responsible.
Meanwhile, it has been widely claimed that a leaked photo of Boris, Carrie and senior aides sitting in the Downing Street garden at a so-called ‘cheese and wine’ party in May 2020 was taken from a room used by the Chancellor and his team. (This is separate from the ‘bring your own booze’ event the same month.) Labour’s Ed Balls, formerly of the Treasury, said the image was taken from ‘the 11 Downing Street first floor balcony’.
Sunak is likely to be in for a rough few months amid soaring bills and inflation, swingeing tax rises and freezes in personal tax allowances that will drag ever more people into paying higher rates.
Boris will shoulder some of the criticism – but the Chancellor can expect a barracking, too.
One Boris ally tells me: ‘Perhaps the Rishi camp isn’t as clever as people think… If they move now, with Boris at a low ebb and inherit the cost of living crisis and the tax rises, they will be blamed for all that and get terrible local election results in May’
One Boris ally tells me: ‘Perhaps the Rishi camp isn’t as clever as people think… If they move now, with Boris at a low ebb and inherit the cost of living crisis and the tax rises, they will be blamed for all that and get terrible local election results in May.’
But waiting, adds my source, represents another danger for any plotters. ‘In the summer, Boris may be rising in the polls again as the economic recovery kicks in, more trade deals are rolled out and we have some big successes on immigration as we finally take back control of our borders post-Brexit.’
Perhaps, rather than all this naked scheming, it would be better if the Chancellor focused on the job in hand – and stood by his boss?
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