IT’S arguable who had the bigger smile when it emerged Rishi Sunak had been fined for not wearing a seatbelt; Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Liz Truss or - most probably - Boris Johnson. Schadenfreude is never far away in politics.

Labour branded the Prime Minister a “total liability” and a “laughing stock” while Sunak, thanks to what has been ridiculously dubbed “seatbeltgate,” has not only acquired another fixed penalty notice but also become the second serving premier to have received a police fine.

After the travails over Suella Braverman, reappointed as Home Secretary following her resignation for breaking the ministerial code, the ongoing bullying inquiry into his deputy Dominic Raab, calls for Nadhim Zahawi, the party chairman, to go over his tax affairs and the sniping over the £2bn given out last week to local causes, Sunak is fast acquiring a damaging collection of lead balloons.

And last week, of course, we had the PM pouring fuel on the constitutional fire by blocking Holyrood’s gender reform bill, which will end up in the hands of the country’s supreme judges.

The FM is set to stoke the coals some more this morning when she is due to take her “campaign for Scottish democracy” to the studios of the BBC in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg.

This week, Sunak will try to map a course to another Tory election victory when he hosts a Cabinet away-day at Chequers. Conservative pollsters will be there to reveal the findings of a mega-poll. Smelling salts may be required.

The Tory hope is Bank Governor Andrew Bailey is right, that the recession won’t be as deep as feared and the target to halve inflation by the year’s end with a return to growth materialises.

But while the Conservatives still lag 20 points behind Labour, Sunak could be forgiven for thinking the biggest risk to his chances of survival and victory at the next election comes not from Starmer but from people sowing the seeds of division within his own party.

Truss is supposedly planning an intervention, possibly ahead of Jeremy Hunt’s “limited” Ides of March Budget, to promote her crusade for tax cuts and growth. Last Wednesday, she attended the private launch of the “Conservative Growth Group” with some two dozen colleagues.

It met in the office of Simon Clarke, her Levelling-Up Secretary, who claims the party is now engaged in a “battle for the soul of the Conservative Party” under Sunak’s leadership. Not a recipe for unity.

The PM’s suggestion, only “idiots” would want tax cuts now, did not go down well with some right-wing Tories.

Ex-party leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, said the Government would “sink without trace” if it didn’t cut taxes from their 70-year high to stimulate growth.

But one minister was more sanguine, pointing to falling household costs, which could give the Tories a pre-election lift. “It’s all about momentum. If we go into 2024 putting some money back into people's pockets, then it will be all to play for.”

Arguably the biggest threat to Sunak, however, comes from Big Dog himself, who most people believe still harbours a burning desire to return to Downing St’s hot-seat.

While Truss might become a bane on tax and growth, Johnson could become one on levelling-up and Brexit, notably over the Northern Ireland protocol.

Last week’s £2bn splurge for local causes didn’t go as well as Sunak had planned as many angry Tory MPs confronted ministers over their constituencies receiving nothing. One incensed Conservative snapped: “This has been a f***-up of epic proportions.”

A new Tory group, the Conservative Democratic Organisation, has been formed, ostensibly to increase the power of party members. But, as its creators are all Johnsonites, there is a strong suspicion the CDO is a vehicle to push for a second Boris coming should, as expected, the Conservatives suffer a drubbing in England’s May local elections.

By sheer coincidence, the group is planning a conference just after the council polls with as many as 1,000 party members attending.

Its Vice-president, Lord Greenhalgh, noted: “Boris has a strong probability of returning. Cincinnatus will be back in Number 10.”

The fact that Johnson received a £1m donation from a Thai-based British businessman to run his office has done little to quell speculation of a comeback. Plus, since leaving office Johnson has already pocketed more than £1.2m from making speeches.

But his capacity as a human magnet for controversy could be the thing to kill off any chance of a glorious return.

Next month, it’s thought the Commons Privileges Committee will start its inquiry into partygate with a view to making recommendations by April.

Johnson is expected to stick to his line he acted in “completely good faith” after being advised everything that happened was within the rules. However, if he were found to have deliberately misled Parliament, then it could ultimately trigger a by-election in his London constituency.

If that were not enough, there is also the start of the Covid inquiry proper in March when the ex-PM will give evidence in public.

And after all the controversies over Downing St refurbishment, donations and luxury holidays, Labour is now calling for an official investigation into Johnson’s finances for reportedly using a millionaire relative to guarantee an £800,000 line of credit.

It’s been claimed the former Tory leader needed the financial help despite earning £164,000-a-year in Downing Street. One unnamed source claimed the ex-PM was on the verge of “going broke”.

His spokesman has insisted Johnson was squeaky clean, having made all the “necessary declarations he was required to make”.

On Tuesday, the straw-haired politician was in the Commons chamber chuckling away after Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, apologised for “inadvertently” airbrushing his former boss from a picture. How on earth can you airbrush someone inadvertently?

Doubtless, Sunak is probably wondering if only he could airbrush Boris out of the political scene, at least until after the General Election, then his life would be so much easier. But he can’t, so it won’t be.