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Rishi Sunak Is Still Haunted by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss

LONDON — From the moment Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain took occupancy of 10 Downing Street last October, he has been haunted by his predecessors: Boris Johnson, defenestrated after serial scandals, and Liz Truss, deposed after an ill-fated foray into trickle-down economics.

On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Sunak’s government faces a deadline to turn over Mr. Johnson’s Covid-era text messages, diaries and notebooks to a committee investigating Britain’s handling of the pandemic. It is the latest chapter in what seems like a never-ending reckoning with Mr. Johnson’s messy tenure.

Yet for all the headlines that Mr. Johnson’s misadventures have commanded in recent weeks — including new allegations of flouting Covid lockdown rules — it is the ghost of Mr. Sunak’s short-lived predecessor, Ms. Truss, that economists say should keep him up at night.

Yields on British government bonds soared last week to nearly the levels that brought down Ms. Truss after only 45 days in office. While the cause of this spike is very different from that under Ms. Truss — fears that inflation is deeply rooted in Britain rather than horror at the previous government’s proposed tax cuts — the political cost to Mr. Sunak could be almost as grave, with an election looming in the next 18 months.

Mr. Johnson’s story “is, to some extent, surface froth,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “That isn’t to say that the Boris Johnson soap opera can’t damage Sunak,” he added. “But what drives voters is the more profound question of the economy.”

On that issue, the market gyrations are a bad omen. They signal that investors believe the Bank of England will have to hike interest rates a lot further to tamp down Britain’s stubbornly high inflation, which could tip the struggling economy into recession. Fear of rate hikes led to the cancellation of nearly 800 mortgage deals, which hurt people who are trying to buy homes.

It also raises the risk that Mr. Sunak will fall short of one of his cardinal pledges as prime minister: to cut inflation in half by the end of 2023. Although the inflation rate dipped below double digits last week, to 8.7 percent, prices for food remained unexpectedly high. Britain has now diverged from Germany, France and Spain, where inflation is much lower and is dropping faster than the economists predicted.

“The notion of ‘sick man of Europe’ has struck again, and when that happens, it’s hard to shake it off,” said Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “Sunak keeps being dragged back to the bad old times.”

In the case of Mr. Johnson, those bad old times include the lockdown-breaking parties held in Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, which resulted in police fines for both the prime minister and Mr. Sunak, then serving as chancellor of the Exchequer.

The latest flap began when the chairwoman of the Covid-19 Inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett, asked the Cabinet Office to hand over all communications between Mr. Johnson and fellow ministers during the pandemic, including WhatsApp messages, which have become a favored way for officials to stay in touch.

The Cabinet Office has so far balked, arguing that it has a responsibility to protect the privacy of ministers. It has refused to hand over what it calls “unambiguously irrelevant” material. Ms. Hallett has pressed for unredacted versions of messages, contending that it is the job of the inquiry committee to decide what information is relevant to its investigation of the government’s Covid policy.

The Cabinet Office, analysts said, is wary of setting a precedent and concerned that the disclosure of personal exchanges could embarrass senior officials, including Mr. Sunak. More than 100,000 WhatsApp messages belonging to a former health secretary, Matt Hancock, were leaked to the Daily Telegraph in February, offering an unflattering glimpse into how senior officials talked about the pandemic.

In one text exchange, Mr. Hancock mocked “Eat Out to Help Out,” a program designed to lure people back to restaurants, which was sponsored by Mr. Sunak. He referred to it as “eat out to help the virus get about.”

In another, the government’s top civil servant, Simon Case, warned that Mr. Johnson was a “nationally distrusted” figure who should not announce new social-distancing rules during a bleak phase of the pandemic in 2020.

“In a sense, this is our first WhatsApp inquiry,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is now a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank in London. “One of the problems is that officials do things in deeply casual ways on WhatsApp. They mix the personal with policy and politics.”

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Johnson said he had submitted a trove of text messages and other material to the Cabinet Office, and he challenged officials to hand it over to the inquiry in unredacted form.

That further complicates the dilemma for the government, since officials had earlier said they no longer had access to the material. It puts Mr. Sunak in an awkward spot, since the government could face a legal challenge if it refuses to comply, which appears likely.

Mr. Johnson has had a chilly rapport with Mr. Sunak since last July, when Mr. Sunak’s resignation as chancellor set the stage for Mr. Johnson’s downfall.

The former prime minister expressed anger last week when the Cabinet Office referred fresh claims to the police that Mr. Johnson had violated lockdown regulations by inviting friends to his country residence, Chequers.

“Nobody has very high expectations of Boris Johnson,” Ms. Rutter said, “but Rishi Sunak may be worried about what might be disclosed.”

Given that the inquiry may not conclude until 2027, the prime minister does not have to fear the information coming out until after the next election, which he must call by January 2025. But he will not have that luxury with the economy, which is casting a long shadow over the future of his Conservative Party.

Mr. Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, succeeded in calming the markets after he replaced Ms. Truss and reversed her policies. Her budget-busting tax cuts were viewed as so reckless that financial analysts took to calling Britain’s elevated bond yields a “moron risk premium.”

“In contrast to the moron risk premium, which was driven by crashing the institutions and generally appearing incompetent, this is quite different,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London. “This is pretty clearly down to the recent inflation numbers.”

Where some analysts say Mr. Sunak erred was in setting a hard target for cutting inflation, especially since the Bank of England, not the government, possesses the levers to do that. What once looked like an easy win now looks touch-and-go.

“The market thinks the U.K. has a persistent inflation problem, relative to other advanced economies,” Professor Portes said.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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