Rishi Sunak (or rather his wife) has had a rough time as of late. His personal finances have been under intense scrutiny, something many are critical of because he just so happens to be our nations financier, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The office has existed for years, far longer than the office of First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister.)
The Chancellor is the money man in government, controlling what money goes towards which area, as well as having control on taxation. Such a position carries immense weight and gravitas, a fact many who have held the office are acutely aware of. Furthermore, if no other is given the title first secretary of state or deputy prime minister, then the Chancellor is de facto government (except in the case of David Lidington under Theresa May.) One must not underestimate the authority of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown effectively operated as opposition to Tony Blair in a cabinet of “yes men”.
Many unsuited individuals have held the office. The first that comes to mind is Winston Churchill. When offered the office by Stanley Baldwin, he presumed he meant Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and was taken aback when offered the treasury. Churchill took little care for economics. He reintroduced the gold standard, which raised the price of British coal over-seas, causing industrial strife and the general strike of 1926. The government lost the following election, going to show the importance of a good chancellor to a smooth term in office.
Sunak has often been suggested as a possible future prime minister. Theoretically, this should be an easy stepping stone, from second Lord of the Treasury to the first, but in reality, it often proves more difficult. Since the war, only Churchill, Macmillan, Callaghan, Major and Brown had held the office of chancellor before their rise to power, and of those only Brown had held the office for any length of time. In many cases, being Chancellor proved too much of a burden, and many tough decisions regularly leads to them becoming a hated figure. George Osborne became the face of austerity measures, and became unpopular on a national level, scuppering any chances he had of becoming leader.
Furthermore, often Chancellors and prime ministers come into conflict. Sunak is surely well aware his predecessor Javid fell out badly with Johnson. Likely this is because the Chancellor has the unhappy job of telling the prime minister many of his big projects are not affordable and to do them, they would need to raise taxes. In the wake of covid, Sunak has the unhappy task of raising taxes and cutting funding, and generally putting stoppers on areas of Johnson’s levelling up agenda. If the prime minister falls, Sunak is not in as good of a place to take the crown as he was at the start of the year, however, as Harold Wilson once said, “a week is a long time in politics.”
Written by Adam Caudle