Rishi Sunak was last night warned he risks damaging his leadership challenge hopes by withholding support from Boris Johnson.
Senior Conservatives said the Chancellor was in danger of jumping the gun on a contest that had not yet started and may not even take place.
One Cabinet minister accused Mr Sunak of ‘going missing’ whenever trouble came.
A Downing Street source said his absence in the Prime Minister’s hour of need ‘speaks for itself’.
Rishi Sunak was last night warned he risks damaging his leadership challenge hopes by withholding support from Boris Johnson
But the Treasury flatly denied reports that Mr Sunak had considered resigning in protest at the handling of the issue of lockdown parties at No 10 – and insisted Mr Johnson had his full support.
Allies of the Chancellor dismissed claims that his support for the Prime Minister had been only lukewarm – with one saying he had used the wording suggested by No 10.
The Chancellor raised eyebrows on Wednesday when he chose to press ahead with an engagement in Devon rather than support Boris Johnson at a bruising session of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Surprise turned to anger when it took Mr Sunak hours to offer even the most tepid public support for the PM, who had been forced to apologise for attending a lockdown party.
Mr Sunak’s message, sent out eight hours after PMQs, explained that he had been out all day, adding simply: ‘The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray [senior civil servant] carries out her enquiry.’ One former minister said Mr Sunak had displayed ‘naivety’ by publicly distancing himself from a PM in trouble.
The Treasury flatly denied reports that Mr Sunak had considered resigning in protest at the handling of the issue of lockdown parties at No 10 – and insisted Mr Johnson had his full support
‘If you are in government and the PM is in difficulty then you stand by him and offer your support, you don’t disappear to the end of the country,’ the MP said.
‘It displays not just a lack of loyalty but also a lack of experience. Colleagues are not impressed – it has damaged him.’
Another senior backbencher questioned whether Mr Sunak had served his best interests by staying away so ‘blatantly’.
‘It makes you wonder whether he wishes the crown a bit too soon and a bit too eagerly,’ the source told the Daily Mail. ‘It’s silly of him to do it.’
A Cabinet source said the Chancellor was ‘in danger of overplaying his hand’, adding he and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – who put out a supportive tweet about the PM, though did so later than the Chancellor – had jumped the gun in manoeuvring for the leadership.
‘Rishi made a mistake in staying away yesterday,’ the source added. ‘It is not the first time he’s gone missing when there’s trouble. Liz is as bad – both of them are masters of the disappearing act. People do notice.’
Priti Patel yesterday appeared to distance herself from Mr Sunak when she spoke out in support of Mr Johnson. Asked if, like the Chancellor, she was reserving judgment on the PM’s conduct until after the publication of Miss Gray’s report, the Home Secretary replied: ‘No! On the contrary.’
A Whitehall source said Mr Sunak’s message about the controversy simply reflected the wording suggested to ministers by No 10 aide Henry Newman.
The source said: ‘If I were Rishi I’d be feeling a bit aggrieved at these claims of disloyalty. His tweet followed almost word for word the suggested phrasing from Henry Newman which was sent round to ministers at about 3pm on Wednesday. It was weak, and a lot of ministers did their own version, but it is what No 10 said they wanted.’
An ally of the Chancellor also stressed that the wording of Mr Sunak’s message was almost identical to that of fellow Cabinet ministers Steve Barclay and Alok Sharma, and similar to that of loyalist Nadine Dorries.
‘Practically every Cabinet minister’s tweet was the same,’ the source said. ‘Some may have put a bit of fluff around it, but Rishi is not a fluffy guy.’
The ally said Mr Sunak’s message of support was late partly because the Chancellor had been locked in an evening meeting with the PM.
Mr Sunak yesterday despatched his deputy Simon Clarke to the airwaves to defend his position in public. The Treasury chief secretary said the Chancellor had been ‘absolutely clear about his support for the PM’.
Former Treasury minister David Gauke said potential leadership candidates had to tread carefully.He told Sky News: ‘If you are serving in the Cabinet then to be seen as openly conspiring is damaging to your prospects.’