Rishi Sunak has had a good crisis, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the Government's golden boy is out of the woods yet. Prime Minister Sunak is possible, but not guaranteed, argues Jack Mountney.

Rishi Sunak has found his first year as Chancellor of the Exchequer being overshadowed by lockdowns and economic uncertainty. Despite this, he saw his popularity soar and ended 2020 as the country's most popular politician. Nevertheless, with more Covid-19 uncertainty ahead and difficult economic decisions on the horizon, many of his own colleagues believe this year could prove to be his toughest yet.

When Mr Sunak was appointed Chancellor in the wake of Sajid Javid's resignation, he was swiftly labelled as "Chancellor in name only". There was an impression from within Whitehall that he had been appointed because he would bend to the will of Mr Johnson and his top aide at the time, Dominic Cummings.

The reality was far more complicated. The Prime Minister was keen to have a relationship with his Chancellor similar to that of David Cameron and George Osborne, while Mr Cummings and his Vote Leave allies certainly preferred Mr Sunak to Mr Javid. It was a relationship reinforced by mutual respect. A former colleague explained that "Dom thought Rishi was smart, so he listened to what he had to say, that didn't happen a lot."

Sunak proceeded to bring in his own team and moved No 10 aide Liam Booth Smith to the Treasury. The pair had worked together at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Mr Sunak thought his biggest challenge would be the Budget he had to assemble at pace. Instead, it was a pandemic. Within weeks of starting in the job, Mr Sunak was having to put the economy on life support. 

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In spite of his inner nerves, Mr Sunak's reputation has been boosted rather than diminished by the pandemic. The furlough scheme is viewed as generous by international standards, while he has communicated clearly about the importance of people looking after one another. Pollsters say that in focus groups, Mr Sunak is often cited as a different type of Tory. He has managed to stand out from Cabinet colleagues. There has also been significant parliamentary outreach since the start of the pandemic, with MPs crediting the Treasury with engagement that No 10 has lacked. Recently, Mr Sunak has endeared himself to colleagues by doing virtual school visits to teach Year 6 classes in maths. 

Many still think there is a high possibility he will be the next Prime Minister, so no one wants to antagonise him. However, with public debt now exceeding 100 per cent of gross domestic product for the first time since 1963, Mr Sunak's popularity is wearing thin. Although his popularity has decreased slightly, in a way it was inevitable given his popularity at the start of the crisis. His colleagues are now quicker to criticise him more than ever, and with the upcoming budget looming – its crunch time for the Chancellor.

A glimpse of what is to come was found in the recent No 10 reach-out session. With Downing Street representatives, Ben Gascoigne and Declan Lyons, addressing Tory MPs. A significant chunk of the questions coming from the backbenchers were related to the Treasury and the upcoming budget – so much so that it was even suggested that Treasury staff should address the next session.

MPs complained about possible tax rises being proposed in Wednesday's Budget and warned that now was not the time. MP's took issue with hints from the Treasury that extending the Universal Credit increase could mean raising fuel duty to pay for it.

This is the dilemma Mr Sunak faces. He is a fiscal conservative who is uncomfortable with current level of borrowing and wants to exercise spending restraint. But many in his party believe that it is too early for retrenchment, while others no longer have an issue with high borrowing. In his Budget, Mr Sunak was expected to start mapping a path back to balancing the books. However, the uncertainty of the Covid-19 landscape means this is now up in the air.

Mr Sunak's critics are now circling like ravenous vultures, waiting to pick off the scraps of his upcoming budget which potentially could smash his popularity to pieces. Tory MPs, as well as Labour ones, refer to the popular 'Eat Out to Help Out' scheme as a measure that has not aged well. With the upcoming budget expect such criticisms to become a more regular occurrence. For now, however, he has the majority of his party behind him and as long as that remains the case, he holds significant power and is the favourite to become the next Prime Minister. 

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