Rishi Sunak is putting the finishing touches on a PR-led leadership campaign after telling allies he believes Partygate could be “unsurvivable” for Boris Johnson, The Independent has learnt.
The chancellor is understood to have built a draft version of a campaign website, taking inspiration from his weekly No 11 newsletter, and developed a marketing strategy.
He and his close circle are also believed to have had informal conversations with former No 10 staffers and MPs about the recent scrutiny of Downing Street, in order to gauge his chance of winning a leadership contest, sources said.
The imminent publication of the Sue Gray report into parties at No 10 is expected to have less impact after the Metropolitan Police asked that it contain “minimal references” to the parties they are investigating, for fear that its release could prejudice their own criminal investigation.
Police involvement may put the brakes on Mr Sunak’s plans, said a source, though they added that “there’s no question that Rishi and his team have got everything in place”. They noted that there is a clear communications plan, and that copy for a website has been drafted and is ready to set live.
Cass Horowitz, a special adviser to Mr Sunak, is widely credited with building the chancellor’s online brand, through canny use of social media, building up his Instagram following, and overseeing his newsletter.
A former No 10 staffer told The Independent that Mr Horowitz was regarded as a “boy genius” by many in the Conservative Party, having revamped its use of social media before moving to work for Mr Sunak.
“He’s built a data dashboard from the newsletter. Every click and share will be informing the wider leadership campaign. He’s got form on watching for any online grassroot sentiment to tap into,” they said.
The No 11 newsletter takes an informal, upbeat tone. It features “uplifting” statistics in “Stats Corner” – a choice cut of the official releases from the past week that paint Mr Sunak’s efforts in the best possible light.
The ex-staffer said that a Twitter account called “Ready for Rishi” (@ForRishi) – which describes itself as “grass-roots” – set hares running at No 10 when it first appeared in September 2020. Its latest tweet, posted on 27 January and pinned to the top of its profile, reads: “Time for a leader who doesn’t break the rules #readyforrishi”.
“If I were Cass, I’d be tapping that sentiment,” said the former staffer.
In recent conversations, Mr Sunak is understood to have suggested that Partygate would ultimately prove “unsurvivable” for the prime minister, sources claim.
One discussion is said to have focused on the idea that it would not be possible for Mr Johnson to continue in the long term, as the scandal had permanently damaged his brand.
But a source close to Mr Sunak said that these claims, along with those relating to the chancellor having prepared a leadership campaign, were “totally false”.
Attention has been drawn to Mr Sunak’s political posturing in recent weeks, which has not gone unnoticed in Downing Street, sources said.
This includes his absence during PMQs when Mr Johnson first apologised for attending the May 2020 party in No 10, and the amount of time it took for Mr Sunak to publicly back the PM on Twitter, eventually delivering what was considered by some to be a lukewarm display of support.
As the wait for Ms Gray’s report drags on, Tory MPs said conversations in the corridors and tearooms at Westminster are increasingly revolving around the identity of Mr Johnson’s successor.
One senior Tory MP, who said they were backing the prime minister, said they were “surprised” that foreign secretary Liz Truss had attracted more criticism for photo ops than Mr Sunak had for the use of his personal branding in regard to policies such as Eat Out to Help Out.
Alongside Mr Sunak and Ms Truss, speculation has revolved around possible bids by levelling up secretary Michael Gove, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, and education secretary Nadhim Zahawi.
Other possible contenders being discussed include Mark Harper, whose role as the chair of the Covid Recovery Group has made him a figurehead for lockdown-sceptic MPs, and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, who may win the backing of “One Nation” MPs linked to the more liberal Tory Reform Group.
One MP told The Independent that preferences for the succession were the topic of conversation “whenever two or three are gathered together”.