Rishi Sunak was accused by Boris Johnson loyalists of stabbing the then prime minister in the back when he resigned from the cabinet – but dramatic new evidence suggests the chancellor was acting in self-defence and was also morally in the right when he quit government.
What exactly happened between the two men has been revealed by Guto Harri, who was Johnson’s director of communications at 10, Downing Street, between February and September 2022.
It was Johnson who was planning to sack Sunak, but the then prime minister was outmanoeuvred by the chancellor, according to Harri.
Sunak was chancellor from February 13, 2020 until his resignation on July 5, 2022. Although the health secretary, Sajid Javid, was the first to step down, the chancellor’s resignation proved critical – for he was followed by 60 other members of the government, making Johnson’s position as prime minister untenable.
Johnson’s allies called the outgoing chancellor a “back stabber” and launched a virulent “anyone by Rishi” campaign, seemingly endorsed by the ousted prime minister, when Sunak fought it out with the foreign secretary Liz Truss for the leadership of the Conservative party. If Harri’s account is right, Johnson and Sunak had a fundamental disagreement since the prime minister wanted to cut taxes in order to be popular with his party, while the chancellor was determined to be fiscally responsible and protect ordinary people from a cost of living crisis.
Harri was being interviewed on Tuesday (9) on LBC about his new six-part podcast, Unprecedented: Inside Downing Street, on Global Player. Asked by Nick Ferrari to describe relations between Johnson and Sunak, Harri replied that when he joined the prime minister’s team, “I expected things to be pretty bad.
“Actually, we sat down every morning. Boris and I had bacon sarnies… Rishi once took one… (he had a) different sort of perspective. But basically it was very cordial, very warm, very respectful, a lot of fun.”
Harri added: “I’ve got a huge amount of time for the current prime minister. I think he’s a class act in so many ways, but there was a fundamental disagreement of policy between the two of them.
“And the subject of the first podcast essentially….is how that tension was building and it wasn’t over ‘partygate’. They both got the same number of fines – it wasn’t a personality clash. There was a limited amount of money left because the government, understandably, blew a lot of money during Covid. So what do you do with the money that’s left?”
Johnson wanted to cut taxes and undertake big investment projects, but Sunak didn’t because his priority was to protect ordinary people, said Harri.
He added: “There is a lot of pressure in the party to cut taxes; that explains why Liz Truss beat Rishi to the leadership. There’s a lot of pressure from Boris to build nuclear power stations and offshore wind farms so that we didn’t have a cost of living crisis in 10 years’ time. And Rishi was stubbornly sticking to the idea that the most important thing to do with tens of billions of pounds was to cushion the impact of people’s bills today – (a) valid point of view.
“But the tension between them was building. Boris was desperate to give something to the party; (he) did not want to put up corporation tax.
“He did want to cut taxes. He did want to bring the bread and butter benefits of Brexit to ordinary punters. Rishi was reluctant to do all of that.
“So, frankly, to cut to the chase, if things hadn’t turned out as they did last July (when Sunak resigned) I think over the summer, we’d have had a reshuffle and Rishi would have been offered a different job, shall we say.”
Ferrari asked if “Boris Johnson was limbering up to move the chancellor out of his position,” Harri replied with a blunt, “Yes.” He added: “The chancellor beat him to it and in a way brought the whole show down.
”Johnson did not pick up signals that Sunak was contemplating resignation, although towards the end the chancellor was absenting himself from the early morning “bacon sandwich meetings”.
“And then when he did decide to go for it, he didn’t even tell Boris face to face (that he was resigning),” continued Harri. “He didn’t even text him. We discovered on Twitter (Sunak had resigned). So that was all a bit rough at the time. But you know, all’s fair in love, war and politics, isn’t it?
“I think that’s (the resignation) slightly water under the bridge. But what I want people to understand is, this is not some sort of soap opera where two guys don’t get on because one’s big and one is small….because they went to different private schools.
“This was a fundamental disagreement about core economic policy that was building behind the scenes for a long time, and was coming to a head and that is the stuff of politics. That’s why people go into politics – because they want to implement what they think will make the world a better place. And Boris wants what is best for Britain.
“He has an irrepressible belief, for better or worse, that Britain is the best place on the planet, but needs a bit of a kick up the backside in order to grow the economy and beat the competition around the world.”
However, Sunak was proved right after he warned Truss that unfunded tax cuts and investment – which Johnson also favoured though perhaps to a lesser degree – would lead to economic disaster. In his resignation letter, Sunak said: “For me to step down as chancellor while the world is suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other serious challenges is a decision that I have not taken lightly.
“However, the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning.
“I have been loyal to you. I backed you to become leader of our party and encouraged others to do so. I have served as your chancellor with gratitude that you entrusted me with stewardship of the nation’s economy and finances. Above all, I have respected the powerful mandate given to you by the British people in 2019 and how under your leadership we broke the Brexit deadlock.
“That is why I have always tried to compromise in order to deliver the things you want to achieve. On those occasions where I disagreed with you privately, I have supported you publicly. That is the nature of the collective government upon which our system relies and it is particularly important that the prime minister and chancellor remain united in hard times such as those we are experiencing today.
“Our country is facing immense challenges. We both want a lowtax, high-growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions.
“I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one. In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.
“I am sad to be leaving government but I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue like this.”
Johnson’s reply to the letter did not address the concerns raised by his chancellor.