Rishi Sunak is 'proud' of work with Boris Johnson - and refuses to rule out bringing him back

The comments were made to ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana as part of the Tonight programme Rishi Sunak: Up Close

Rishi Sunak has revealed that he still speaks to Boris Johnson and refused to rule out the possibility of bringing the former prime minister back into his top team.

"I’m proud of the work that we did together. And we worked well together for a long time. In the end there are, you know, well-documented differences," said the PM, highlighting, in particular - Johnson's 2019 election win.

That didn't quite answer the specific question. After pointing to Mr Johnson' election winning track record - I asked if he'd consider bringing him back into his Cabinet? 

"Well, I never talk about these personnel things, but look, I, you know, I speak to him on an occasion," Mr Sunak added. 

Really? When was the last time they spoke?

"I can't remember, probably late last year," he said.

Mr Sunak did not rule out the possibility of bringing Boris Johnson back into the top team at Downing Street

Johnson’s team didn’t deny the conversations but one of his biggest supporters wasn’t convinced.

Nadine Dorries, who served in Johnson's Cabinet, called the prime minister's comments "a lie" and claimed "they never speak".

The comments were made to ITV as part of the Tonight programme Rishi Sunak: Up Close. Over two months we went behind the scenes with Mr Sunak, inside Downing Street at key political moments but also in the flat with his family, and back in Southampton where he grew up. 

The programme airs in a difficult week for Mr Sunak in which he took a £1,000 bet over plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, saw rightwing Tories set up the PopCon group to pile pressure on him, and was heavily criticised for make a joke about trans people while the mother of murdered transgender teenager, Brianna Ghey was visiting parliament.

All of that, after former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke warned of an electoral massacre if Sunak isn't removed, and rumours of plots against him grew. 

Do you have a thick skin? I asked him at one point inside Downing Street (before this week's controversies). "Yes!" he replied. 

But even his closest allies know that this is a difficult time. Former Conservative leader William Hague who is somewhat of a mentor to Mr Sunak, praised his work ethic, rationality and performance on the world stage, insisting he was a great prime minister.

But he also admitted that Mr Sunak's quick rise to the top of the party and country meant difficulties when it came to the politics - and party management. 

He insisted his friend and colleague could keep going, arguing he was resilient and could "keep going for a long time under difficult conditions, without panicking, without losing heart, and without losing courage.

"I think it was meant to be Winston Churchill who said, if you are in hell, keep going."

During my time with Mr Sunak, he played down the idea of rebellion, but did admit that political parties only win if the whole team is rowing in the same direction, arguing people "don’t vote for divided parties". (Although he also claimed that any differences were miniscule.)

I know that the question of Mr Johnson has been discussed by some Conservative MPs, with even loyalists to the PM asking if he could help by campaigning in northern seats during a general election.

When Tonight put Mr Sunak's comments and that of MPs to Mr Johnson's spokesman, he did not comment on the pair speaking, but on the idea of whether he would come back if asked, said he would not rule it out or in.

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Mr Sunak was asked during filming if he understood what people meant when they spoke about broken Britain and he said he knew things had been hard but claimed people understood the impact of once-in-a-generation events like the Covid pandemic and Ukraine war

I suggested there was a choice, pointing to his honesty as chancellor when he said that we needed to raise tax to pay for a new social care and health plan. 

"Isn't the truth of the choice now, that you're looking to cut public services?"

"When I said that was about a social care plan, which you're right, if you're going to introduce something new like that, then you have to answer where it's going to be funded from," he replied.

People understand that events like the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine will have economic impacts, Mr Sunak told Tonight

"So you can't have a social care plan without that money?"

Mr Sunak replied: "We are increasing the amount of money that we spend but we've got to focus also on what we're getting out of public services. I think it is right to figure out, well, how can we get people to be able to keep more of their own money."

I also put to the PM the constant way in which his wealth is raised (including in a Savanta focus group ITV News commissioned) as a sign that he is out of touch. Is his wealth a problem for voters? 

"No. For the simple reason that when I was chancellor and introduced things like the furlough scheme, which protected around 10 million jobs, nobody said that, right? I'm the same person.

"And I think most people in our country are fair-minded… And you know what, if someone wants to attack that or make it a political smear, I actually think it says more about them and their ambition for our country, or lack of it, than it does about me and where I come from." 

"I think most people in our country are fair-minded," Mr Sunak said, when asked about whether his wealth was an issue for voters

Still, I pointed out that he had once said (during the first Tory leadership race that he lost) that his party would have no chance of winning an election if Liz Truss went ahead with her economic plans. So he must have thought that he had no chance of winning an election when he became PM? 

Sunak argued that he believed he could win, but said he didn't come back because he thought it would be easy, but out of a sense of duty. 

What would he do if he loses? Spend a lot more time with his family, he said - something he admitted he was missing out on.

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Tonight: Rishi Sunak: Up Close airs Thursday 8 February at 8:30pm on ITV1. It is then available on catch up on ITVX.