Chancellor Rishi Sunak updates Conservative Party Virtual Conference
Artillery Row Sketch

I come not to bury Boris

My name is Prudence and I’m here to have a good time

“My first conference speech as Chancellor isn’t exactly how I expected it to be,” Rishi Sunak began, and what can we say but “Amen”?

When George Osborne was doing the job, he worked on the basis that conference speech day was one of three days in the year when he could be confident of getting the next day’s front pages. Struggling against a sickly president and the latest track-and-test mess, Sunak will struggle to make “news in brief”.

Further evidence of a possible sabotage effort came when the feed from Sunak’s speech died

There are occasional attempts by those in government these days to explain that whatever has just gone wrong is actually a brilliant move in the game of eight-dimensional chess that Dominic Cummings is playing (against himself, presumably) in Downing Street. It’s possible that as I type, a colleague is being told that the “computer error” that saw thousands of Covid-19 test results go missing because an Excel file had run out of space was actually a genius play by Dom. “It gets all you Islington types worked up, but out there in the Real World, people don’t care about tracing disease, they just want Charles Moore to run the… hang on, got my notes muddled… they just want Robbie Gibb to run the BBC. You can have that as a ‘Senior Government Source’.”

If that sounds implausible, let me just point out that, at a time when he’s being widely touted as the ideal replacement to Boris Johnson, Sunak on Monday became the first chancellor in history to be upstaged by a spreadsheet. Classic Excel: it’s got all the numbers just where you want them. Well, most of them, anyway.

Further evidence of a possible sabotage effort came when, in the midst of a long list of thanks, the feed from Sunak’s speech died. The speech, delivered from a windowless room in a bunker somewhere, already had a slight air of a video-conferenced pep talk from a regional sales manager, and this completed the look. One imagined the team chat springing to life: “Anyone else’s feed gone down? I’ve just lost him.” “Yeah me too, I think it’s at his end.” “Rish, you there? Try closing the app and then clicking the link again.” “I don’t think he’s reading these messages. Can someone call him?”

Sky cut to earlier footage of Johnson discussing the testing problem, proving that those technology lessons hadn’t gone to waste.

As an investigative sketch writer, I’ve sat down and watched the bit of the speech that was lost: it turns out to have been 90 seconds of praising Johnson. Was that something Team Rishi didn’t want aired, or was it a double bluff by Team Boris? Classic everyone.

Other parts of the government might be falling apart, but Rishi Sunak’s Treasury marches on

One of the challenges for a minister in this government is that almost everything you say could be read as an elaborate attack on Johnson. When Sunak thanked his family, was he hinting that here was a sentence the prime minister would struggle to utter without someone laughing? His comment about the caring side of Johnson that “the commentators don’t see” could easily be read as an acknowledgement that the prime minister is getting some terrible write-ups at the moment. And when he said that “on the big calls, in the big moments, Boris Johnson has got it right,” was that a backhanded hint that the rest of the time he’s been a hot mess?

Eventually, they got Sunak back, but on a slow, blocky feed whose quality lockdown parents would recognise as “child playing Fortnite in next room while video-calling eight friends”.

He launched into a rapid list of the government’s achievements in fighting the virus: support schemes, grant schemes, loan schemes “…and yes! The furlough scheme!” It was a rhetorical trick that, in Gordon Brown’s mouth in 2009, brought the Labour Party conference to its feet. It was less effective in the empty Tory conference bunker, but it did carry a crucial message: other parts of the government might be falling apart, but Rishi Sunak’s Treasury was marching on.

Sunak said the crisis had brought home the importance of government to people to whom it had previously been “distant and abstract”. Who are these people, who don’t use the NHS or state schools, who don’t receive pensions or welfare payments or have to navigate bureaucracy to secure care for a loved one? Hedge fund staff? Russian oligarchs?

He went on. “This Conservative government stood between the people and the danger and we always will.” (Terms and conditions apply, care homes should check eligibility, your economy may be at risk if you do not keep up payments to your local restaurant.)

It wasn’t just in construction that the speech was starting to emulate Brown. There was quite a lot of love for big government for someone who was supposed to be a free-market Tory. “The overwhelming might of the British state will be placed at your service,” he told those worried about the impact of the virus. “We will not let talent wither, nor waste.” Those lines might actually have come from a Brown speech that one of Sunak’s aides found lying around the Treasury.

There was the briefest nod to prudence, just like in the Brown years, and then a promise to “be worthy of the great trust” that the public had placed in the government, and then he was suddenly gone for good, either the result of a deliberate attempt not to make a Brown-style big speech full of ambition to displace the prime minister, or because someone from Team Boris had taken an axe to the feed.

 

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