In all the finger-pointing about the Sunak family finances one thing seemed, even by the standards of British politics, remarkably hypocritical. All political parties now, quite rightly, champion equality. But as far back as 1882 Gladstone’s second administration passed the Married Women’s Property Act, undoing centuries of English common law and a husband controlling the assets of his wife. Now, 140 years later, so-called progressives are attacking the Chancellor for not playing the mid-Victorian paterfamilias, and keeping his wife’s finances under control.
The absurdity of attacking Mr Sunak for how his wife, who is not even a British subject, manages her considerable wealth only emphasises the cowardice and stupidity of using her to undermine him: for it should be obvious that he had dug his own political grave quite deeply enough without his enemies weaponising her.
Much is awry not just with British economic management, but with the presentation of economic policy, and the buck stops with him. He has helped other parties to challenge the Conservatives’ economic record. More pointedly, he has made it easy for those of his colleagues who wish to stop him from succeeding Boris Johnson to do so. It is seldom wise, if one has prime ministerial ambitions, to be the heir apparent, as any number of beached ex-cabinet ministers will confirm. Mr Sunak, sadly for him, has become the latest.
It is not advisable to be Second Lord of the Treasury in an avowedly tax-cutting party at a time when the tax burden is at its highest since the days of Mr Attlee, when we had the Second World War to pay for. It is not good to preside over apparently uncontrollable public spending – pandemic or not – to the point where your colleague, the fraud minister, resigns because you are showing no inclination to tackle £4.3 billion of fraud against the Exchequer caused by Covid loan schemes: never mind £9 billion written off for useless personal protective equipment.
But perhaps worst of all – and this seems to have become the main card to be played against the Chancellor – it appears not to be a good idea to be a very rich man with an even richer wife at a time when, it is reported, some people are feeling forced to choose between eating and turning their heating on, and you have just made many of them pay more National Insurance.
Being extremely rich should not be a disqualification from holding high political office. However, the Chancellor’s public relations of late have been abominable, especially for one who was formerly so assiduous (perhaps too assiduous) at projecting an attractive public image. If he understands what life is really like for many whom he helps govern then he makes a poor show of communicating that fact. Notably, a photo opportunity he staged when cutting fuel duty last month served to suggest only his inexperience at filling a car up, leaving others to assume that he has a forelock-tugging man who does that for him.
Mrs Sunak’s agreement to pay tax on her overseas earnings in Britain has been reported as a ploy to save her husband’s career. It is probably too late. The Prime Minister, having seen the failure of many ministerial colleagues and backbenchers to support Mr Sunak, may conclude that he could reshuffle him without much harm. With all the talk of the Sunaks’ global property portfolio, and of Mrs Sunak being richer than the Queen, Tory MPs are now openly saying he is too rich to be prime minister. Given what Labour calls “the cost of living crisis” and Mr Sunak’s tactlessness in managing his public image and his policies, they may, regrettably, be right.
In a meritocratic party a leader should be chosen according to his or her abilities. Unfortunately for Mr Sunak, however, what has really undone him is that his talents are now being seriously called into question. His family’s fortune, compared with that failing, is a secondary matter.