(Alliance News) - British finance minister Rishi Sunak on Monday denied he was eyeing up the job of his beleaguered boss, Boris Johnson, and vowed to uphold his "sacred responsibility" of rebalancing the books after a splurge of coronavirus spending.
The chancellor of the exchequer is being portrayed as a leader-in-waiting by some Conservative lawmakers and right-wing commentators, after resisting stricter curbs on public life to counter the Covid-19 crisis.
But speaking at the Conservatives' annual conference, Sunak downplayed any rift with the prime minister, acknowledging the "difficult trade-offs and decisions" forced upon Johnson's government as Britain endures the worst pandemic toll in Europe.
Asked if he was looking to move next door from the chancellor's residence at 11 Downing Street, Sunak told a fringe event: "Definitely not, seeing what the prime minister has to deal with. It's a job hard enough for me to do."
The 40-year-old minister moved his young family into the residence over the summer, and said Johnson's dog Dilyn was "my two daughters' favourite thing in the world... That has at least staved off me having to get a dog for a little while".
In an earlier speech to the ruling party's virtual conference, Sunak paid credit to Johnson's "special and rare quality" of connecting with people.
"But what the commentators don't see, the thing I see, is the concern and care he feels for people every day, for the well-being of every person in our country," he said.
"Yes, it's been difficult, challenges are part of the job, but on the big calls, in the big moments, Boris Johnson has got it right and that is the leadership that we need."
Sunak has won plaudits for a series of big-spending schemes designed to protect jobs, but his popularity will be tested when it comes to bringing down the sky-high borrowing they have incurred.Â
"We have a sacred responsibility to future generations to leave the public finances strong, and through careful management of our economy, this Conservative government will always balance the books," he said, without offering any details.
"If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us?" he added, warning of "hard choices" ahead.
Yet while backing Johnson, Sunak also sought to adopt a tone of confident leadership as millions more people submit to local lockdowns to restrict a second wave of the coronavirus.
"Because even if this moment is more difficult than any of you have ever faced, even if it feels like there is no hope, I am telling you that there is, and that the overwhelming might of the British state will be placed at your service," he said.
Aside from the pandemic, the British economy faces a serious challenge from the possibility of a "no deal" split from the EU at the end of this year, once a post-Brexit transition period lapses.Â
The two sides have agreed to keep talking on a trade deal for now, but Johnson says the UK "can prosper mightily" if it has to go its own way next year.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that there is a deal that can be done. It would be better and smoother in the short term if we're able to do that," Sunak told the fringe conference event.
"But if we can't, so be it," he added, arguing that the government's preparedness work had left the UK "in a stronger position" now than last year.
By Jitendra Joshi
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