Have cake, hate cake

The Sun-Chancellor is having his cake, and hating himself for eating it

It was, Boris Johnson told us, a Budget for “a new age of optimism”. There is something desperate about the prime minister’s need to cheer us all up. He continues to be the Good Times leader steering the nation through seas of misery. 

Or perhaps things are actually great. That was definitely the message of Rishi Sunak’s Budget statement on Wednesday. 

“Employment is up,” he began. “Investment is growing. Public services are improving.”

It’s all good, it turns out. The empty shelves in your supermarket, the wait for NHS treatment, the frankly scary letters from British Gas, those are all in your mind. Things are going wonderfully. 

Things haven’t been wonderful, of course. Like Johnson, Sunak is determined that this Conservative government will fix the problems left by the wicked Tory governments that have ruled Britain for the past eleven years.

He didn’t quite put it that way. But as he announced that sums would be more than had been spent “in a decade”, or were the most “in a generation”, one sensed his speechwriters had been looking for ways to avoid saying “since we cut it all in 2010”. Certainly on the Labour benches there was mounting frustration.

Labour MPs would have loved it, if it had been a Labour chancellor announcing it all

And what a lot of money there was. We live in a time of plenty. There were billions for new homes and billions for hospitals. Tax breaks for museums, tax breaks for solar panels. What lucky people we were to live under a government of such munificence! What a blessed nation to bask in the glorious radiance of our tiny, immaculately tailored Sun-Chancellor!

But for all the cash he announced, the reaction behind him was curiously muted. There were appropriate noises at appropriate moments, but often there were silences, too. And what’s the point of spending £21 billion on roads if you don’t even get a cheer?

Labour MPs would have loved it, if it had been a Labour chancellor announcing it all. Labour’s problem over the last 18 months is that, broadly, it has agreed with the thrust of the government’s approach to Covid, if not the details or the timings. Tory MPs, on the other hand, have hated it all, both the lockdowns and the public spending. And now that they’ve decided Covid is over, they want it to stop. 

The chancellor had found a formula that allowed him to claim that the public finances were sound, which seemed largely to be based on the idea that the government borrowed an awful lot last year, but doesn’t plan to do so again. Or, as Sunak put it, “borrowing down, debt down”. 

On the backbenches, they were unconvinced. As Sunak carried announced his never-ending cash bonanza, Philip Hollobone sat fiddling intently with his pen. Next to him, Andrew Bridgen had his arms firmly crossed. Up in the gallery, Steve Baker looked sick. David Davis gnawed his thumb. Gareth Bacon looked like a man whose daughter’s new boyfriend has just revealed he makes his living as a drug dealer. 

Andrew Bridgen was left unable, perhaps for the first time in his life, to cheer either Brexit or cheap beer

Sunak was doing his best to please the troops. There was a move to make more ships fly British flags. There were tax cuts on flights within Britain, and on alcohol, which gave Labour’s Rachel Reeves a decent line later, as she claimed the Budget would be toasted by “bankers on short haul flights sipping champagne”. 

The chancellor built to one of his big clap lines, that he was able to cut the cost of beer because Britain had left the EU. It landed well, with many Tories shouting for more, but Bridgen didn’t even crack a smile. 

And then, after telling us all for an hour about the wonders of public spending, Sunak did a very strange thing. He disowned it all. 

“Last year,” he said, voice full of solemnity, “the state grew to be over half the size of the total economy. Taxes are rising to their highest level as a per centage of GDP since the 1950s.”

This was what had so upset Bridgen he was left unable, perhaps for the first time in his life, to cheer either Brexit or cheap beer. 

“I don’t like it,” Sunak said, “but I cannot apologise for it. It’s the result of the unprecedented crisis we faced and the extraordinary action we took in response.” 

Things would, he promised, be different in future. Lord, make me a fiscal hawk — but not yet.

It was a magnificent moment of chutzpah. After taking credit for the spending, he now wanted praise for not having enjoyed it. Having his cake, and hating himself for eating it. 

Sunak had reached the end of his speech: “Growth up!” he said. “Jobs up! Wages up! Public finances…” He paused for a moment. Up? Down? “…back in a better place.” As in, presumably, “they’re in a better place now”. The new age of optimism has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

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