Rishi Sunak doesn’t seem to have sought to distance himself from Boris Johnson over the Government’s handling of the Owen Paterson case. The context was an interview yesterday about the latest growth figures.
During the course of the conversation, he was bound to be asked about Paterson – and if his Conservative colleagues should have been whipped to vote against the former MP’s suspension.
In conceding that the Government had got it wrong, the Chancellor said much the same as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Barclay in the Commons last week.
But not exactly the same – and the difference is worth pondering for a moment; as is that between Sunak and those two of his Ministerial colleagues.
The Chancellor said that “we do have established independent parliamentary processes that govern all of these things and it’s absolutely right that those are followed to the letter”.
Which suggests that Conservative MPs should at the very least have been free to vote in favour of suspending Paterson for 30 days – the recommendation that those “independent parliamentary processes” agreed.
Furthermore, sources close to Sunak are keen to stress to ConservativeHome that the Cabinet was never consulted about the original Paterson vote. Or, to put it more pithily: nothing to do with me, guv!
The Chancellor also said that “reflecting on all of these things over recent days, for us as a government, we need to do better than we did last week and we know that”.
This is as close to the apology that the Prime Minister hasn’t given as Sunak will have thought he could get away with without generating headlines about “splits”.
The point about the difference between this Chancellor, say, and Barclay or Rees-Mogg is that neither of the latter are possible next leaders of the Conservative Party.
Sunak could simply have said that the original decision was wrong. By suggesting the Government must raise its game, he reminded viewers that there is future Tory leadership available should Johnson and a bus get tangled up in Whitehall.
It would be defter, slicker, more alert to Parliamentary opinion, and better at handling U-turns – as it has proved over the decision first to go off, and then perhaps to go back on, the 0.7 per cent target for international aid spending.
Or so the man who came top of this site’s last Future Conservative Leader survey would like you to believe. Especially now that the Prime Minister has promoted another possible contender, in a classic divide-and-rule power play: Liz Truss.
It may well be that you couldn’t care less about these marginal differences and textual analyses. But you are not the audience that Sunak has in mind. For the moment, he is concentrated on another: Tory MPs.