Will Boris Johnson demote Rishi Sunak?

Ally warns that PM would be signing own political ‘death warrant’ by relegating chancellor

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
Happier days at 10 Downing Street when Boris Johnson first promoted Rishi Sunak to chancellor in February 2020
(Image credit: Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has reportedly threatened to demote Rishi Sunak as tensions between the prime minister and his chancellor reach boiling point.

Insiders present at a Downing Street meeting of senior aides last week told The Sunday Times that Johnson had been “apoplectic”, “raging” and “f***ing tonto” over a leaked letter in which Sunak urged him to ease travel restrictions.

“While most members of his government were winding down for the summer, Boris Johnson was getting decidedly wound up,” according to the newspaper. In a “fit of frustrated impotence”, in front of more than a dozen witnesses, the PM is reported to have said: “I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe it’s time we looked at Rishi as the next secretary of state for health. He could potentially do a very good job there.”

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A senior source claims that Johnson then proposed that the chancellor, who was not at the meeting last Monday, could be demoted in the next reshuffle.

The Sunday Times suggests the “toxic suggestion” may “electrify already tense relations between No. 10 and No 11 Downing Street”, with the two men at loggerheads over public spending.

‘All in jest’

A Whitehall source has told The Sun that Johnson’s comment “was all in jest” and that “he was never going to act on it”.

All the same, says the paper, “furious” Conservative MPs are urging the two men to make peace and stop squabbling. An unnamed Tory MP told The Sun: “It’s all beyond pathetic, and showing a lack of team spirit.”

The Sunday Times adds that, joke or not, the fact that Johnson “even entertained” the idea of demoting Sunak is “significant”. “Several of those present were struck by his vehemence and his reckless openness at a time when growing scrutiny is falling on tensions between No 10 and the Treasury,” the paper reports.

‘Death warrant’

A Sunak ally told The Telegraph that Johnson would be “signing his death warrant” in demoting the chancellor.

The insider added: “There’s nobody else as good as Rishi. He’s the most popular character in the government. I think he brings stability. I don’t see why you would remove him.”

Another told The Times that Sunak would opt for the back benches over a demotion - and warned that such a move would risk triggering a leadership contest.

Meanwhile, a senior MP told the Financial Times that it was “obvious” that Johnson could not get rid of Sunak just 18 months after Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor. “To lose one chancellor may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness,” said the insider.

‘Crux of the issue’

This latest Tory row “arguably gets to the crux of the issue between what one source described as the ‘big spending PM’ and a Chancellor keen to claw back the exorbitant costs of Covid”, says The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey.

From Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, “tensions have always existed between No. 10 and No. 11”, Tominey continues, but Johnson “appears more vulnerable than he has ever been during his two-year administration”, with his approval ratings at an all-time low.

Sunak’s letter over travel restrictions implies that “the dynamic may have shifted between the two most powerful politicians in Britain”, she concludes - and “if the relationship appears on shaky ground now, the autumn spending review threatens to derail it completely as Mr Sunak attempts to shrink a state Mr Johnson appears intent on expanding”.

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