With less than two weeks before Rishi Sunaks budget, the message from the Treasury is, do not expect fireworks. There have been many pyrotechnic devices off the scene, however, as the chancellor tries to maintain the stance against colleagues at great expense, not least the prime minister himself.
After a row with Kwasi Kwarteng erupted last weekend over support for businesses hit by the energy crisis, with a Treasury source effectively accusing the business secretary of lying, Boris Johnson weighed in on the Kwartengs side from his Marbella wall .
While this was an extremely public dispute and remains unresolved, with Treasury officials still casting a skeptical eye on bailout plans, the old conservatives say it reflects the ongoing tension between Sunak and Johnson.
As Johnson tends to try to solve short-term political problems by squandering cash, colleagues say Sunak sees himself as the custodian of the public purse and is increasingly concerned about the risks of inflation.
Boris is essentially a political animal, exactly what he is. Rishi is very diligent, very hardworking, and he takes his role very, very seriously; and he looks at the current conditions, and he knows there will be tough choices to make, said a senior conservative who knows both men well.
There is a disappointment from him [Sunak] and more broadly in the Treasury that the rest of the cabinet has more of a fair attitude towards spending and borrowing, and he knows this is not sustainable.
Colleagues say the two men are doing well and one described their relationship as a team of labels. But there are two overlapping factors that fuel tensions between them: different economic priorities and a different political outcome.
While Johnson repeatedly stressed his desire to create an economy with high wages and high skills at the Conservative conference, Sunak has noted the risks of inflation if wage growth is ahead of productivity as the economy recovers.
The Allies are clear that he sees higher wages as a result of decisions to invest more in skills and technology, not a quick fix. I think what the prime minister was doing was to express an ambition and a vision and sometimes to achieve the vision it has to be very simple, one said.
And as Sunak willingly signed off on unprecedented spending during the pandemic, including the emergency leave scheme, which saw the state pay the wages of millions of workers, he has made it clear he now wants the government to restore financial discipline.
He is a fiscal conservative not only because this is the role of the chancellor and his gut political instinct, but also because this is what the conservative party wants to see and hear.
Few in Westminster suspect the former multimillion-dollar defense fund manager came into politics in hopes of becoming prime minister.
His personal brand has been carefully burned by a special adviser, Cass Horowitz, who helps with his brilliant appearance on social media, including a recent video with a dramatic orchestral soundtrack welcoming the success of the holiday scheme.
However, Sunaks’ popularity among conservative Conservatives has recently been eclipsed by that of new Secretary of State Liz Truss, whom some believe Johnson deliberately promoted as a rival.
The chancellor dropped from second to fifth place in the latest monthly poll by ConservativeHome website of Conservative members who will ultimately decide who will succeed Johnson.
That still put him 21 seats ahead of the prime minister, but the slide could reflect Sunaks’ role in signing the increase in national security contributions announced last month.
Of course he felt the need to stress at the party conference, amid murmurs from members and MPs, that he still believed in low taxes, but not before insisting that public finances should be put on a sound footing.
Wrapper Steve Baker complained at a time when the government was, moving badly forward, making Ed Milibands Labor policies. They hated him every minute and tried to claim his conservatism.
At the Septembers Downing Street press conference to announce the rise in historic national insurance contributions, Sunaks body language was significantly less comfortable than that of Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid.
The Allies later confirmed that he would have preferred not to raise taxes at all, but as Chancellor of Johnson, he voted for the prime ministers’ personal promise to regulate social welfare.
For other recent spending decisions, including cuts in overseas aid and a 20-week universal loan cut, Sunak has asserted himself, in the face of deep concerns among colleagues about the consequences of his harsh approach.
But he was visibly outraged by Kwartengs’ plea for more money for crisis-stricken firms, and government insiders say he is also resisting a new outbreak in preparing the UK for a zero-sum move, before Cop26 summit.
Some have begun to wonder how many times Sunak will be able to take the boat by pulling towards more spending from Johnson, who has focused on the vast majority of re-election profits, despite the fiscal cost.
The prime minister reportedly considered leaving Sunak behind after the couple clashed in the summer. But he would be a formidable critic, and Johnson has already lost a chancellor when Javid resigned last year instead of agreeing to share his advisers with the number 10.
A Johnson ally said of the chancellor: He is very supportive of the prime minister and is a team player, but I think they both have very honest conversations in privacy. Resell not shrinking purple; says his part.
Stewart Wood, a Tony Blair-Gordon Brown government veteran, says tensions between Johnson and Sunak are well known, but the chancellor will have to decide what he stands for. The classic dynamics of Treasury-No 10 is, No 10 has a lot of things they want to do that cost money, Treasury says we can not afford it.
With Blair and Brown it was different, he says, because Brown not only saw himself as the custodian of the verses, but had a vision of how the money that clashed with the prime ministers should be spent.
He had other advantages. He said no in the name of some kind of agenda, said Lord Wood. If Sunak saw himself as a future leader of the Conservatives, he suggested, he would need more to say than not. He must have an alternative. What does Rishi Sunak bring to the party?
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