How Sunak wooed the press and sparked intrigue over No 10 challenge

The wave of flattering front-page headlines that followed the chancellor of the exchequer’s statement outlining his autumn strategy to tackle the tottering economy screamed out from news stands across the country.

What was not known was that the often gushing coverage came after a Treasury mission to win the hearts and minds of national newspaper editors and political columnists at a crucial moment for the Conservative party.

Over several socially distanced, strategic breakfast meetings last week Sunak wooed opinion-forming journalists on the right and centre-right of British politics in a smooth operation interpreted by some in the party as a clear challenge to No 10.

“There is a great level of despair, not just about the handling of Covid, but also about Brexit, from many of those in the party I am still in touch with,” said Anna Soubry, the former Conservative MP for Broxtowe, who left last year to form the now-defunct Change UK. “And while many of the previously loyal members on the backbenches are understandably fearful about standing up to Johnson in public, it is quite something to see rightwing newspapers so prepared to criticise the prime minister in a time of national emergency.”


Boris Johnson also called the press to meetings last week

Boris Johnson also called the press to meetings last week. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson also called in the nation’s press for meetings last week in the run-up to and then in the wake of his grim announcement of the dark winter months to come. But Sunak’s upbeat call for a braver approach seems to have been more persuasive.

After the chancellor’s statement on Thursday the Daily Mail proclaimed his “new battle cry” had upstaged the prime minister, whose “cautious, health-focused” briefing on Tuesday had merely alarmed the public. Sunak’s key argument, that the long-term threat to the economy now means the country must learn to live “without fear”, bore a striking resemblance to the words of the newspaper’s own leader the previous day.

The Telegraph also splashed its support for the chancellor’s fresh emphasis on finding an affordable path through the pandemic crisis. Even his bleaker predictions of a “more permanent adjustment” to the economy were given a positive gloss. This was an honest, though harsh, “reality check”, readers were told.


The Daily Telegraph’s front page on Friday.

The Daily Telegraph’s front page on Friday. Photograph: The Daily Telegraph

At a time when Rupert Murdoch is preparing to launch a television news channel, Sunak’s campaign to gain friends in Fleet Street has been opportune. Rare offers of interview time with the chancellor have cemented the idea that he is the approachable face of an embattled government.

“There has been a real attempt to present the sensible face of government, away from all the jokey optimism of Boris’s public statements,” said one executive on a centre-right popular newspaper. While this carefully balanced PR offensive does not add up to treachery, it has done Sunak’s public profile no harm.

But the media war has not been the only campaign front for the chancellor. An email sent out from Sunak to Tory party members on Friday called for a positive attitude with the rallying words: “Our lives can no longer be put on hold”. Although a Treasury newsletter does go out each week to membership, the rhetorical tone last week struck a new, personal note.

“We were still being told something we did not want to hear, I suppose, but it did feel as if it was a more straightforward argument,” one constituency activist said this weekend.

Last week the influential party website Conservative Home also hailed Sunak as “the leading champion of opening up” the economy. This followed the site’s August “cabinet satisfaction ratings” poll, which placed the chancellor at the top, while Johnson, who headed it last December, languished in eighth place.

If last week was the opening salvo in a succession race then it comes at a tricky time for Sunak, as many businesses bemoan the end of the national furlough scheme. In response the chancellor’s team cleared his diary quickly as his statement to the nation was brought forward. Sunak, a relative newcomer in parliamentary circles, had to establish relationships with editors from both the Murdoch newspapers and the Mail group before the economic weather worsens. His team is keen to set up direct communications routes, but argues that there is no contradiction with the prime minister’s message. Johnson has set out the journey ahead; Sunak is simply setting the course.

His new instruction to walk forward “without fear” through the valley of Covid-19 was always going to be an easier sell to the public than a winter of privations. But the crowd-pleasing packaging of his changes to the summer’s financial lifebuoy is now thought to be worrying cabinet members close to Johnson, as well as those who would align behind Michael Gove in a leadership bid.

Soubry sees irony in the fact that Sunak is benefiting from the efforts she believes Gove has made to position himself as the next leader. “Gove is on serious manoeuvres, and someone is giving lots of briefings. There is some nasty stuff being said about Boris and about Carrie. The great problem for Johnson is that many MPs feel they have no access to him or his team. All the Tories I speak to don’t talk about Gove, they talk about Sunak. But the problem is, he’s only been around for five minutes really.”

The Guardian

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