Ah, Budget Day. So many traditions: the Chancellor posing with the briefcase, playful speculation about what he might be sipping as he delivers his speech, political editors declaring it a “triumph” as soon as he’s sat down, the whole thing falling apart within a week.
This one was branded “A Plan For Jobs”. We’ll come to that. Before the prime minister-in-waiting got to his feet, Parliament had a chance to hear from the incumbent, Boris Johnson. It wasn’t one of his better sessions. Keir Starmer focused on Yemen. Readers will recall that the UK is more than halving its donations to this devastated country, a decision the government is not keen to discuss.
Somehow, despite the deep unease within his own party on the issue, Johnson seemed unprepared for the questions, squirming on the point. Starmer finally asked if Parliament would get a vote on the matter. The prime minister ignored the question, and floundered badly.
“He cannot even address a question on the issues of the hour,” Johnson said. “He could have asked anything about the coronavirus pandemic; instead, he has consecrated his questions entirely to the interests of the people of Yemen.”
Yeah, who cares about starving kids? We know the prime minister too well to look to him for moral leadership, but it felt crass, especially the day after reports that Johnson wants to set up a charity to pay for his flat to be decorated with £100-a-metre wallpaper. Flat-footed even, not the sort of thing a more fly performer like David Cameron would have done.
The government narrative is that it’s in touch with the interests of ordinary voters, while Labour is obsessed with far-away countries of which we know little. Perhaps. But many Tory MPs also think their leader has got this wrong. And even if the Conservatives are right that their supporters are selfish bastards, it may not be wise to say so out loud.
I’ve watched test matches shorter than this year’s Budget announcement
And then to the Budget, which seems to have been going on for ever. I’ve watched shorter test matches. After Rishi Sunak had delivered his statement to parliament, there was a press conference in the evening. It isn’t over yet, either. There’s an “extended broadcast round” on Thursday morning, and then he’s up in front of personal finance guru Martin Lewis in the evening. The Money Saving Expert meets the Money Spending Expert.
The chancellor’s time with Lewis isn’t likely to be too tough. Most of “what the Budget means for you” is “we’re still going to be giving you cash.” In the long term, it may mean something different, but then as Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead. And these days, some of us are in the short term, too. But between being living and dead, some of us might want to be PM too.
This exposure must be based on the idea that Sunak is popular with the public. But his popularity is partly the result of having been introduced to them all last year as “someone you’ve never heard of who’s going to put money in your bank accounts”. This is not one of the harder jobs in politics.
Perhaps that explains the attempt on Wednesday to extend his brand to include hard truths. “I want to be honest with you about the problems we face, and our plan to fix them,” he told viewers at the start of the press conference, looking straight down the camera for what felt uncomfortably like a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Rishi Sunak Party.
He couldn’t quite hit the notes, though. He spoke slowly and a touch patronisingly, sounding less like Winston Churchill pledging to defend a beach and more like a Blue Peter presenter explaining “death”, in the context of the sudden absence of the show’s much-loved Border Collie.
On which subject, he did at least directly address what might be considered a government failure, the people who had died of coronavirus since his last Budget. “To the family and friends left behind, your loss, felt most acutely in the quietest of moments, must be overwhelming,” he said, mysteriously failing to add: “But on the bright side, remember the fiver you got off those Big Macs in August.”
As for being “honest”, Sunak looked decidedly shifty when asked to explain why the money for deprived areas seemed to be aimed mainly at Tory seats, including his own. Apparently there’s a formula, but someone else can explain all that.
As so often with this government, many of Sunak’s announcements could be read as an attack on Sunak’s previous announcements. “I said ‘whatever it takes’ and that means ‘for however long it takes’,” he told the press conference. But this is very much not what it meant at the time, as people who lost their jobs because their employers thought furlough support was going to be ended prematurely will testify.
I would be impressed if one voter in a thousand could explain what a freeport is
Because the giveaways had already been given away, the Budget rabbit that Sunak was left to produce from his hat was freeports. These are a strange Conservative obsession on the fringes of Brexit, like trade deals with Easter Island. We’re told that, like cutting off aid to the starving, the policy is very popular in northern seats, but I would be impressed if one voter in a thousand could explain what a freeport is. It seems likelier that Sunak was producing something that will delight the electorate that matters to him: the Tory MPs and members who will elect the next leader.
Plan for jobs? One man’s plan for one job, anyway.
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