HOW would the classical tragedians of the past have reacted to the Rishi Sunak story? Aeschylus, an exuberant fellow when among friends, would have thrown his hat in the air, called for urns of ouzo and organised an orgy of smashed crockery. Corneille would doubtless have cried Gallic tears of joy and produced something to match his 1636 box-office smash, Le Cid.
All the classical dramatic ingredients are in place if you allow for the lax habits of our age: the unities of action (it’s all about Rishi), time (24-hour news cycle) and place (Downing Street) with a Greek chorus of media newshounds and Labour attack dogs intoning woeful tidings of gruesome events as they occur off stage.
Sunak’s startling fall from grace, gradual at first with unfavourable polling on the Conservative Home site, becomes a frenzied helter-skelter race into depths of unpopularity that few achieve and none has ever scoured with such gusto.
The tragedy opens when in Act 1, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid find themselves on opposite sides of a revolving door at the Treasury, the former on a glittering rise to high office while the latter leaves Number 11 in a sulk essentially at the behest of Dominic Cummings, for whom Nemesis already beckons. The auguries are unfavourable, the chicken livers presage trouble and yet, all hail the new Chancellor: Rishi is dishy.
The months pass and the apparatus of state is becoming corrupted by the state itself. In Act 2, Sunak in overalls wields an oil can to lubricate the printing presses at the Bank of England. There is muttering about the logic of paying public-sector people not to work while supermarket staff and delivery drivers do. But Rishi has an idea that eating out to help out will keep the economy buoyant and the only way to prise idle civil servants from their sofas and box sets is to offer them subsidised food. Meanwhile the media chorus reassures us that the Chancellor understands money and the Labour hand-wringers troop on to the stage to demand further restrictions to keep us safe and their supporters comfily at home.
But what is this? Sajid Javid returns to government as the creature of the medico-industrial complex just like his intellectually more stunted predecessor. Thank goodness for Rishi rather than Saj at the Treasury!
And yet, and yet . . . has Rishi over-extended himself? Are there signs of ructions between the Chancellor and his boss? Rishi will spend Act 3 insisting that he is a low-tax Chancellor while hypothecating a hike in National Insurance to fund (according to taste) social care or a shortfall in NHS budgets or a macedoine of good causes. What have the fates in store? Will Rishi be able to manoeuvre skilfully through the thread they spin for him or will their non-dom status place them beyond his jurisdiction?
Act 4 opens with the chorus lamenting that the ordinary car which Rishi is filling with petrol for a photo-op actually belongs to a Sainsbury’s employee. Rishi responds by saying he has an equally ordinary car, a VW Golf. ‘Is that so?’ the chorus moans. ‘What about the Range Rover and the Merc at your country residence?’ Rishi looks up ‘hubris’ in the Downing Street dictionary but finds no entry for it.
The pace picks up for the rest of Act 4 with a series of adverse events: Mrs Rishi loves the UK and has lived here for ages but is domiciled elsewhere for tax purposes. All is perfectly regular and it’s unkind to pick on Akshata Murty, who has nothing at all in common with those nasty non-dom Russian oligarchs whose assets Michael Gove would like to sequester. On reflection she will henceforth be paying UK tax on her Indian money. ‘Hang on,’ intones the chorus, ‘if there wasn’t a problem before, why the change?’ Rishi does not reply. He has left 11 Downing Street and headed west: maybe to his home in Kensington, maybe further west to the Land of Green Cards.
At this juncture our bard, be it Sophocles, Shakespeare or Racine, stops for a well-earned breather before tackling Act 5 and the exodus. The challenge for the self-respecting dramatist here is how to account for behaviour which goes beyond the foolhardy and borders on the moronic. Rishi, as a hero of tragedy, cannot be allowed to pass as a dullard and while audiences down the millennia have had no difficulty in accepting that politicians are dim, they do expect them to have wily political instincts for self-preservation.
How is our piece of theatre to be resolved without Feydeau, the master of farce, elbowing the tragedians to one side with a whoop of ‘Gimme!’ and grabbing the unfinished script?
Rishi’s tragedy consists of his being a man of nowhere whom thoughts of political survival have never troubled because political survival isn’t paramount, for whom political life is only one of many possible lives and for whom the UK is only one of a number of possible domiciles. Where another Chancellor would rear up like a frightened horse at such unconventional, nay privileged, tax arrangements within his own household, Rishi, unlike Oedipus, manages to be blind without going to the trouble of gouging out his own eyes.