Not so much a chancellor, more a lifestyle coach. When Rishi Sunak gave his first budget just a year ago, he was the ingenue stand-in for Sajid Javid who had had a major strop. Now he is a brand, – complete with his own range of merchandise. The ath-leisure hoody. The fragrance “Dishi par Rishi”. The conscious coupling to produce his own scented candle with Gwyneth’s Goop.
But what works well on social media doesn’t translate quite so well to the House of Commons. Because, having spent much of the previous week leaking his entire budget to the media and making six minute Twitter videos, Sunak’s second budget – if you don’t count the eight emergency ones in between – felt rather flat. The best part of an hour in which the chancellor told us almost nothing we didn’t already know.
Lights, camera, action. Sunak had tried to lift himself for his speech after he was called to the dispatch box. But whether it was the absence of the mournful solo piano during the sad bits that had moved him to tears in his video, or just that it all now felt a bit stale, he couldn’t quite land his budget with the panache he had hoped. The words came out as planned but his eyes were curiously detached. As if, for a moment he had seen through his constructed persona of the leader in waiting and found himself wanting. The worry that, deep down, he might just be another fake. A huckster who had kidded himself he could do a near impossible job. “That which we are, we are,” as he would later randomly quote Tennyson.
Sunak had started by saying he was going to be honest with the country. Unlike some prime ministers he could think of. Though not honest enough to ever slip in the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility had predicted that Brexit would lower productivity by 4%. In fact he didn’t get round to mentioning Brexit at all. Maybe it just slipped his mind. Nor was he entirely honest with announcement of the locations of the eight supposedly game-changing tax havens, aka freeports, because he had rather forgotten that we had previously had seven freeports up until 2012 while we were still in the EU.
No one could have done more to support the country during the pandemic than him, he said. There was a lot of use of the word “I” in his budget statement and very little “we” . It’s amazing how quickly a politician can morph from a team player into a diva. And Rishi was going to carry on showing how much he loved the country by extending the furlough scheme and the rise in universal credit until September.
But once the pandemic was over and the UK was on the road to recovery, then there would be some hard decisions to take. Though not immediately. Rather the cost of the bailout would have to be paid for in delayed tax rises. A freeze on income tax thresholds and a postponed rise in corporation tax to 25%.
There were no gags, small mercies. The chancellor has enough nous to realise his main attraction is as “the thinking person’s nerd”. He concluded with some words about super-deductions – everyone nodded along, though they didn’t have a clue what he was on about – investment in some red-wall seats, and the green economy making Britain great again, before sitting down to a few half-hearted cheers from Tory backbenchers. It would take some of them a while to work out that they had just been applauding a budget that had trashed the past 10 years of Conservative economic policy and was closer to something that John McDonnell might have given the previous year than anything in the Tory manifesto.
Replying to a budget speech is generally a thankless task, but Keir Starmer had an easier time of it than most as almost all of it had been in the public domain for several days. His critique focused mainly on public sector pay freezes, the failure to act more swiftly to lockdown earlier in the pandemic, the absence of anything on social care and Brexit and the temporary nature of the uplift to universal credit. Sunak pretended not to hear and spent most of the time checking his texts – “You were fab, Gwynnie xxx” – and social media feed on his phone. When you’re as big an influencer as Rishi, it’s one of the few ways you can be sure you’re alive. That, along with a can of Mexican cola and a Star Wars lightsaber.
The fix proved short-lived. If Rishi had hoped that by being the first chancellor to give a press conference on the evening of his budget speech, he was going reinforce his credibility as the on-trend new-age economics guru, then he was in for a big disappointment. Because it was as if he couldn’t quite believe his budget wasn’t getting the endorsements he craved. Whereas in the Commons he had at least managed to sound like a grown-up as he delivered his speech, in his Downing Street briefing he sounded like a narked and patronising senior school prefect. As if the reason people were unreceptive to what he had to say was because they were too stupid to understand it, rather than there being any holes in his thinking.
“I want to be honest with you,” he said, sounding tetchy and deflated, before going on to tell some of the same untruths as before. Nothing on Brexit, nothing on any future costs of the pandemic, cagey on tax and pretending to be amazed that the vast majority of new money was going to Tory-held seats in the Midlands and the north.
This was Rishi laid bare. The man-child who didn’t have all the answers and couldn’t bear to be openly cross examined. To think that Matt Hancock aspires to this level of fame. Sunak wrapped up the presser as fast as decently possible. A day that had promised so much – in his own imagination at least – had turned to dust in a matter of hours. The Peloton exercise bike was in for one hell of a pounding when he got home.