Eyebrows have been raised over Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak’s bold claim that he prevented the government from introducing an Omicron lockdown in December 2021 just “hours” before it was due to be announced.
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Speaking to LBC’s Andrew Marr on Thursday, the former chancellor said he had flown back from an overseas trip “to stop us sleepwalking into a national lockdown”. He explained that the UK was “hours away from a press conference” where details of an Omicron lockdown were to be laid out.
Sunak added that he “came back and fought very hard against the system” because he believed that a Christmas 2021 lockdown “would be the wrong thing for this country, with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives”.
The Tory leader hopeful argued the anecdote proved he is “prepared to push hard and fight for the things that I believe in even when that’s difficult”, but his claim is said to have “angered some of his old colleagues”, Politico’s London Playbook reported.
One government source described Sunak’s account as “categorically untrue”, according to the Daily Mail’s political editor Jason Groves. “He was out in California and planning to stay there on holiday until he started to get criticism from business back home,” said the source. “It is categorically untrue to say we were hours from another lockdown.”
They added: “By the time he got back, the PM had already decided he didn’t want to go beyond Plan B restrictions.”
Another Whitehall source accused Sunak of “rewriting history”. “It was a massive call and it was made by the PM,” they told the Mail. “I don’t remember him making any meaningful contribution.”
But Sunak’s team has pushed back, “insisting” that his story is “totally true”, wrote Groves on Twitter.
Back in January, the Mail on Sunday’s Glen Owen reported that Boris Johnson had been “forced to abandon his plans to cancel Christmas after a revolt by furious Cabinet colleagues”.
Anti-lockdown ministers told the paper that a “three-pronged attack” by Sunak, David Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg had been launched to force the PM “to ignore demands by his scientific advisers for families to be banned from mixing over the festive period”.
The Mail on Sunday said the “drama” started on 15 December, when Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, used a press conference to explain that the new Omicron variant posed a “really serious” threat and advised that people limited their social interactions in the run-up to Christmas.
At the time, Sunak “was 5,000 miles away in California, having flown out the previous day for his first holiday in two years”, said Owen. He “rang Mr Johnson to urge restraint… then made immediate arrangements to fly back to London”.
According to Owen, Sunak “went straight” to No. 10 to see the PM when he arrived back in the UK. On 19 December, he allegedly spoke to his boss again, “to warn him that he didn’t have ‘the political capital’ to push through any such measures”.
In the end no lockdown was announced in England “meaning families could see each other over Christmas”, said the BBC. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, introduced tighter rules.
‘Far from a lone voice’
Although Sunak did indeed “come back from overseas early”, he failed to mention in his LBC interview that he “was on the receiving end of quite a bit of criticism at that point for being in California when the Omicron variant was surging”, said the BBC’s political correspondent David Wallace Lockhart.
Several government sources also told the BBC that the former chancellor was “far from a lone voice around the cabinet table” when it came to opposing an Omicron lockdown.
It is “not unusual” for accounts of the inner workings of government to vary, said Andrew Sparrow on The Guardian’s live blog. But, he explained, “this story is damaging because the YouGov polling out yesterday suggested that 40% of Tory members do not view Sunak as honest, and that this is one reason why they like Liz Truss more”.