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How Rishi Sunak can make the big leap from chancellor to prime minister

Rishi Sunak still faces a sizeable leap from No.11 to No.10

Chancellor is the biggest job in government apart from prime minister but, argues Jill Rutter, Rishi Sunak still faces a sizeable leap from No.11 to No.10

One of Rishi Sunak’s strongest selling points to be prime minister was that he had been chancellor for two and a half very difficult years. That compared favourably to Penny Mordaunt’s brief cabinet stints as international development secretary, defence secretary and leader of the House. But Sunak is still quite inexperienced – he was elevated rapidly from the No.2 job in the Treasury when Sajid Javid quit and spent only a short time as a housing minister before that from summer 2019 to February 2020.

If you only did one cabinet post, chancellor would be the best one to choose. The Treasury has its fingers in multiple pies. It has an overview of departments from its role on spending. It has a big international dimension and Sunak will have been to international meetings of G7 and G20 finance ministers as well as to the Fund/Bank meetings in Washington, so he will be a more known quantity around the world.  

That applies in spades when the economy is top of the priority list at the moment. Sunak brings the instant advantage of being thought to get the economy and markets – and that credibility, combined with the rapid filling of the leadership vacuum, is why both interest rates dropped and sterling rose today as it became clear he would be the new prime minister. What some have called the moron risk premium[1] has been replaced by a Goldman geek discount.

Gordon Brown struggled to make the transition

But Sunak is way less experienced than either of the last two chancellors to make the transition to No.10. Gordon Brown had been chancellor for 10 years, and shadow chancellor for years more, when he moved next door. John Major had been a whip, a social security minister, chief secretary, a brief and very unhappy foreign secretary as well as chancellor before taking over from Margaret Thatcher (in those days his rise still counted as “meteoric”).

Brown in particular struggled to get to grips with the differences. As a chancellor in relatively benign times, he had been able to control his own timetable, popping up when he had big set piece announcements to make but otherwise flying below the radar. He could set the agenda and had little need to react to events and could take decisions (or not take them) in his own time. He could draw on deep support from his assembled adviser team, the officials he trusted and the wider support team of the Treasury. He could use his power and authority (and the power of the purse) to impose his will on any department in whose business he wanted to interfere (and there were lots of them).

The prime minister does not control their own agenda

In No.10, on the other hand, the prime minister has to cope with issues coming at them from all sides – and can be dragged into settling the most difficult arguments that everyone else has failed to resolve. Foreign policy takes up a disproportionate amount of time, as so much business is now conducted at head of state level, as does handling Northern Ireland. There are the weekly PMQs to prepare for as opposed to questions once a month – and the lessons of the last three premierships are that No.10 needs to devote time and effort to parliamentary management. As well as that, the new PM is only some two years from a general election so will need to have an eye on developing the policy platform for the next election. Good diary management is a must have for a new prime minister.

Chancellors have it (relatively) easy. As they walk through the door they inherit a department ready to serve them and can slot in with their small adviser team. Prime ministers on the other have a small team of civil servants at No.10 – though can bring in their own people as Liz Truss did when she brought over her principal private secretary from the Foreign Office. But they need to assemble a new adviser team, and work out how they want No.10 to work. Gordon Brown had a number of false steps in trying to make No.10 work before he resorted to luring back Jeremy Heywood as permanent secretary there. Boris Johnson went through repeated personnel and structure changes to try to make it work. Liz Truss might have reorganised if she had survived longer – but her first act of sending off a lot of No.10 staff to the cabinet office means Sunak has fewer resources reporting directly to him than she did. Hopefully he has had time to think about how to organise the support structures and personnel he needs.

Sunak, like Brown, is well placed to handle the top issue

Gordon Brown really only found his feet at No.10 when he was able to deploy his finance minister nous to respond to the financial crisis of 2008. Sunak’s immediate priority is the economy, and he needs to get to work instantly on the fiscal statement. The one advantage of having an ex-chancellor at No.10 is that they can “hit the ground running” on economic issues. The problem for Sunak is that he also needs to get to grips with the war in Ukraine, a winter of discontent in many key services and the imminent collapse of the caretaker executive in Northern Ireland.


  1. Ashworth L, Quantifying Britain’s moron risk premium, Financial Times, 19 October 2022, www.ft.com/content/08908266-cc47-4cda-b8d4-97a8ac433a6d

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