Rishi Sunak has come under fire for an awkward party conference speech beset by technical problems this morning, with his eyes ‘darting back and forth’ as he tried to read the auto-cue.
The Chancellor’s speech cut out shortly after it began and he struggled to read off a teleprompter that appeared to have been put in the wrong place, with the camera angle changing several times.
Baffled viewers also said he sounded like he was ‘accepting an Oscar’, hitting out at his ‘victorious-sounding’ speech despite dire warnings of tax raises and economic hardship to come.
In the keynote address, Sunak also conceded that he will not be able to save all jobs as Britain tries to recover from the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, despite the warnings, the Chancellor used a large part of his speech to lavish praise on his family, Conservative supporters, predecessors and the Prime Minister, sharing his gratitude for their support.
Allies of the Chancellor blamed the way Conservative HQ had set up the auto-cue and podium for the awkward imagery.
‘It’s not that hard to get the auto-cue just below camera eye level,’ one said. ‘Let’s hope it’s sorted for the PM tomorrow.’
The gaffe is a rare misstep for Sunak, who has won plaudits for his slick, well put-together appearance during the pandemic, in contrast to the bumbling performances of some of his ministerial colleagues.
It is also a surprising blunder for his highly-rated PR guru Allegra Stratton, the former BBC and ITV News journalist who is widely seen as being behind the Chancellor’s positive approval ratings among the British public.
Ms Stratton is the favourite to front the government’s new White House-style daily press briefings set to begin later this month.
She has been credited with helping to boost the Chancellor’s public profile and increasing his popularity during the coronavirus crisis, having joined his team earlier this year.
Boris Johnson was also said to be impressed by her impact and is thought to have sounded her out to front the new televised press briefings.
She is now on the final shortlist following a day of interviews and screen tests at No 10 a few weeks ago.
Allegra Stratton: A former ITV and BBC news presenter who quit journalism to spin for Rishi Sunak
Allegra Stratton is a former ITV journalist who has been Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications at the Treasury since this April.
The 39-year-old mother-of-two quit ITV News to enter politics after co-presenting Peston on Sunday with Robert Peston.
She also served as ITV News’ national editor, making her first appearance on the broadcaster’s News at Ten programme in January 2016.
Before that she worked at the BBC between 2012-2015 as political editor of Newsnight, replacing Michael Crick who left to become a correspondent for Channel 4.
Previously she was the Guardian’s political correspondent and presented the newspaper’s Politics Weekly podcast with Tom Clark.
Ms Stratton has also worked as a producer for the BBC, on the foreign desk at The Times and wrote for the Independent and the New Statesman.
Before embarking on her journalism career, Ms Stratton attended Cambridge University.
She is married to James Forsyth who is the political editor of The Spectator magazine.
The Prime Minister is expected to interview Ms Stratton and the other candidate for the six-figure salaried position – a ‘left-field’ BBC presenter, according to sources – to test their personal ‘chemistry’.
Ms Stratton, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, quit ITV News to join Mr Sunak’s increasingly powerful Treasury operation.
The Cambridge University graduate, who is married to James Forsyth, the political editor of The Spectator, has been the favourite since No 10 said that it was introducing the afternoon TV briefings as part of a bid to communicate more directly with voters.
Mr Johnson has declared himself to be ‘impressed’ by Ms Stratton, and recently invited her to join him at Chequers.
Downing Street has struggled to attract a wide field of experienced broadcasters to apply for the job because of the lavish pay packets of the television industry – and the risk they will become the public face of the Government’s pratfalls.
The new briefings will take place in a revamped No 9 Downing Street, which is currently being turned into a media centre.
However, today’s keynote address from the Chancellor is sure to raise eyebrows in Westminster.
Baffled viewers took to social media to share their confusion at the tone of the speech.
One said: ‘It’s not an Oscars acceptance speech #RishiSunak.’
A second added: ‘About to have breakfast until shiny happy clean Rishi Sunak has arrived on my news feed thanking his support network & predecessors by first names sounds like an award acceptance speech surprisingly not hungry anymore more ewwwwwwwwwww.’
While a third said: ‘Rishi Sunak, the sycophant rises. That was one of the most nausea creating speeches I have ever heard. The kind of speech made on behalf of despots and dictators.’
The technical issues were also highlighted on social media.
One person said: ‘Rishi Sunak, another world beating tech failure. PS learn how to read from an autocue.’
A second said: ‘Another technical glitch. Fortunately, this time we only lost the video link to Rishi Sunak, not thousands of lives because people potentially infected with Covid-19 weren’t contacted.’
Allegra Stratton, a former presenter on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme, is widely seen as being behind the Chancellor’s positive approval ratings among the British public
The Chancellor suffered technical issues during the address, with his speech cutting out shortly after it began
While a third joked: ‘ Who put the autocue so far to the side for Rishi’s speech?’
The speech was about 10 minutes long in total, with the first two minutes seeing the Chancellor thank a host of people.
He said: ‘Being appointed Chancellor in February this year was an immense honour. Even though my first conference speech as Chancellor isn’t quite how I expected it to be, it remains a privilege to talk to you today.
‘And I am here today because of so many different people. My family, whose love sustains me.
‘My colleagues in Government and in Parliament, whose backing has never wavered. My association in Richmond, North Yorkshire, who placed their trust in me, and gave me their loyalty, support and this opportunity to serve.
‘And my party, whose members, councillors and activists worked tirelessly to deliver a Conservative government in December last year.’
The Chancellor went on to describe politics as a ‘team sport’ and paid tribute to his colleagues and predecessors, hailing them by their first names.
He also described Boris Johnson of having a ‘special and rare quality’ and defended his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Sunak said: ‘Politics is a team sport, and there is always a multitude of hardworking people behind any effort. So, I want to thank my ministerial team; Steve, Jessie, John, Kemi, Theo, Claire and James.
‘I also want to thank my predecessors: George, Phillip and Sajid. It is only because of ten years of sound Conservative management of our economy that this government has been able to act with the pace and scale we have in responding to Coronavirus.
‘And I want to thank the Prime Minister, for entrusting me with this job and whose friendship has been invaluable.
‘I’ve seen up close the burden the Prime Minister carries. We all know he has an ability to connect with people in a way few politicians manage. It is a special and rare quality.
‘But what the commentators don’t see, the thing I see, is the concern and care he feels, every day, for the wellbeing of the people of our country. 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 we need that leadership.’
Later, Sunak delivered a stark warning that tax rises and spending cuts might be needed after the immediate crisis passes.
Rishi Sunak (pictured visiting Octopus energy with Boris Johnson this morning) mounted a staunch defence of his Eat Out subsidies after the PM admitted yesterday they might have contributed to the sharp rise in coronavirus cases
He said ‘over the medium term’ the government will need to ‘get our borrowing and debt back under control’.
‘This Conservative government will always balance the books,’ he said.
The speech came after Sunak risked fueling the speculation of tensions with Mr Johnson branded the 10pm pubs curfew ‘frustrating’ and insisted he had ‘no regrets’ about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
By contrast the PM admitted yesterday that the dining subsidies might have contributed to the sharp rise in coronavirus cases.
The two men were pictured together visiting an energy firm this morning in an apparent bid to smooth over the situation.
Sunak told the conference – being held virtually due to the pandemic – that he was ready to do whatever he could to protect the economy.
But he also signalled that there will have to be a reckoning for the government’s huge outlay.
‘We will protect the public finances. Over the medium term getting our borrowing and debt back under control,’ he said.
‘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.
‘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?’
Sunak has been cementing his status as the leading Cabinet ‘hawk’ on the need to get the economy running again, winning plaudits from MPs who are furious with Mr Johnson for curbing civil liverties and trashing business.
That has sparked claims of tensions between the two politicians. But Sunak tried to draw a line under the rumours today with a gushing tribute to the premier.