DAN HODGES: Why the gloss is coming off Dishy Rishi, with even Tory MPs going cold on him
Tory MPs are suddenly going cold on Dishy Rishi.
‘I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing,’ one told me.
‘This spending is ridiculous. We’re just storing up massive trouble for the future.’
A second MP said: ‘You can see what his plan is. He’ll wait till six months before the Election then cut taxes.
‘But it will be too transparent. And it won’t give enough time for people to feel the benefits.’
There was also another high-profile Conservative figure who appeared less than happy with the Brownite tax-and-spend package unveiled by Rishi Sunak in Wednesday’s Budget. Rishi Sunak himself.
‘Yes, we have taken some corrective action to fund the NHS and get our debt under control,’ he told the Commons.
‘But as we look towards the future, I want to say this simple thing to the House and the British people: my goal is to reduce taxes.
‘By the end of this Parliament, I want taxes to be going down, not up.
‘I want this to be a society that rewards energy, ingenuity and inventiveness, a society that rewards work.’
On Budget Day, it’s traditional for the Chancellor to wait until the end of his speech to pull a crowd-pleasing rabbit out of his hat.
But Sunak acted as if he’d pulled out a live alligator. The last five minutes of his address was basically a self-serving apologia for everything that had preceded it.
He was essentially saying to his Conservative colleagues: ‘Nothing to do with me, guys! Boris made me do it!’
DAN HODGES: There was also another high-profile Conservative figure who appeared less than happy with the Brownite tax-and-spend package unveiled by Rishi Sunak (pictured) in Wednesday’s Budget. Rishi Sunak himself.
Those colleagues are less than impressed. As one Minister told me: ‘I’m expected to go back to my constituency this weekend and sell his Budget on the doorsteps.
‘How am I supposed to do that when the Chancellor basically just rubbished it himself?’
Despite some increasingly frantic polishing by Sunak and his impressive – and extensive – PR and social-media team, the sheen has been coming off Brand Rishi for several months now.
There was the extraordinary attack launched by Sunak’s aides on Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
There were reports the Chancellor was tired and rundown. And he fell behind Liz Truss in the influential Con Home survey of how the various Cabinet Ministers are rated.
Allies of Sunak admit he has recently been feeling worn-out, but attribute his lethargy to the long hours he’s been pulling in preparation for the Budget.
And they dismiss the spat with Kwarteng as ‘a few frustrations spilling over’.
As one friend says: ‘Briefing against colleagues isn’t Rishi’s style.’
But Rishi’s obsession with style is a big part of the problem.
Having lauded him during the pandemic – where his fiscal largesse was seen as necessary for keeping the economy afloat – MPs are becoming increasingly frustrated at the way he seems to prioritise promoting himself, rather than the Government.
DAN HODGES: Despite some increasingly frantic polishing by Sunak and his impressive – and extensive – PR and social-media team, the sheen has been coming off Brand Rishi for several months now
Last year he was openly criticised by the then Armed Forces Minister Johnny Mercer after he removed Tory branding and replaced it with his own signature when he announced an extension of the furlough scheme.
In order to dodge that criticism, his PR gurus ensured the Tory logo was prominently displayed on the Budget briefings circulated to backbenchers last week. But they again removed it for the Budget messaging he circulated via his main social-media account.
There’s also a growing sense that his focus on his own PR means he frequently takes his eye off the ball when it comes to assessing the wider political picture.
‘Look at the fiasco over Marcus Rashford and free school meals,’ one Minister said to me.
‘That was completely avoidable. It only costs £100 million to fix, which was nothing compared to what we were spending in the middle of the pandemic. It was a screw-up entirely of Rishi’s own making.’
To be fair to Sunak, he is self-aware enough to realise Rishimania was always destined to have a short shelf life.
He told one Minister: ‘It’s easy to be popular when you’re spending money. Wait and see what happens when I start turning off the spending taps.’
While not reaching the depths of the Blair/Brown psychodrama, it’s an open secret Boris believes his Chancellor has been insufficiently subtle over his manoeuvring to succeed him
But unfortunately for the Chancellor, the taps are still fully open. And the criticism is already mounting.
On Thursday he was roundly mocked when he praised the ‘world famous Burnley market’ while sitting in Bury.
Treasury officials dismissed it as a slip of the tongue. But one Tory MP thinks it was indicative of a deeper issue.
‘I wouldn’t say he’s out of touch. But you have to remember Rishi is a Goldman Sachs investment banker who’s worth a couple of hundred million quid.
And every now and then he’ll do or say something that reminds people of that.’
And when he doesn’t, Labour will. The attack line Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves deployed against him – ‘at least the bankers on short-haul flights sipping champagne will be cheering this Budget today’ – was crude but effective.
There was also relief – and bemusement – on the Opposition benches that Sunak had appeared to disown his own Budget while he was still delivering it.
‘I thought we were in real trouble,’ one Shadow Minister told me. ‘He hadn’t really left much political space for us. But then he came out with all that stuff at the end where he said he didn’t really want to do any of it and wanted to cut taxes instead. It was weird.’
Partly this was a product of the strained relationship between the occupants of No 10 and No 11.
While not reaching the depths of the Blair/Brown psychodrama, it’s an open secret Boris believes his Chancellor has been insufficiently subtle over his manoeuvring to succeed him.
Nor does it help that Sunak is seen as close to Dominic Cummings, the enraged former aide who has embarked on a one-man kamikaze mission to blow up Boris’s premiership.
But Sunak’s biggest problem isn’t his proximity to maverick advisers, or distance from a wary Prime Minister. It’s his own ambition.
He actually delivered a decent Budget. Taxes and spending are unsustainably high, but in the wake of the pandemic can be justified over the short term.
But his attempt to distance himself from what he’d just announced, and use the speech to make a personal pitch to Tory MPs about his own low-tax credentials, was embarrassing. He may long to be Prime Minister but at the moment Rishi Sunak is Chancellor.
That was his Budget and he needed to own it. Instead, he tried to wash his hands of the whole thing.
And that doesn’t bode well for the future. Last week was the first time since his meteoric rise that Rishi Sunak was asked to do some heavy political lifting. And he buckled.
When called upon to front up raising taxes to the highest level since the 1960s, he tried to hide behind Boris.
When asked to address head-on the very real problems facing the country in the wake of Covid, he tried to distract the nation with promises of jam tomorrow.
And when his priority should have been selling his financial plan to the British people, he was more concerned with selling himself to Conservative backbenchers.
Tory MPs are finally going cold on Dishy Rishi. And they’re right to.