“We should not be apologetic.” Rishi Sunak had summoned us to Enfield in North London, which for some of us had meant a train, a Tube, a sprint to another train and then a taxi. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask him to apologise for that, except that he then delivered his speech in front of a solid blue backdrop so anonymous that he could have achieved the same effect by simply doing it in Downing Street.
This is a strange feature of British politics. If you’re going to go to Enfield, have something Enfield-y behind you, or at least some students from the FE college you’re visiting in the room. Otherwise, why bother? The all-time winner from pointless speech locations is Theresa May, who once travelled to Florence to give a speech in front of a grey backdrop that her team had brought with them on the plane, thus avoiding the risk that she might have been accidentally photographed in one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
However, it wasn’t for making us all trek up to Enfield that the prime minister was refusing to apologise. That would have been ridiculous. No, he was refusing to apologise for saying that government should aim to make people better off and safer.
This, too, is a political tic. Does anyone, anyone at all, think this shouldn’t be an aim of government? Even under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was promising this. Now obviously it’s hard to tell this is a Conservative goal from very much that they’ve done in the last few years, but it’s hardly likely that anyone walks into a meeting in Westminster saying: “Today, let’s make people less safe!”
Or so you might think. Elsewhere in London, Sir Patrick Vallance was suggesting that a surprisingly common conversational opener from ministers in 2020 was: “Just spitballing here, but how bad would it really be if we let more pensioners die?” The way the Covid Inquiry is going, it won’t be a shock to hear that the original name for “Eat Out To Help Out” was “Kill Granny, Save Nandos”.
Back in Enfield, Sunak was in full flow. There was, as ever, the Hot Dog Toryism. “Owning our own home,” he said. “A healthy, happy retirement. I know that right now, that dream feels out of reach for too many.” Who is to blame for this? Well, never let it be said that the prime minister isn’t willing to accept failures on his own side.
Sunak acknowledged that not everything the Conservatives had done in office had been a triumph. September last year, for instance, was a total disaster. More than that, he hinted that the reason he resigned from Boris Johnson’s government was neither the parties nor the lies, but a difference of opinion about taxing and spending. Poor Rishi: even when he does the right thing, he does it for the wrong reason.
Then, having gone as far as he could in admitting his own side’s failures, he was back to trying to take credit for successes. This speech was a victory lap for the fall in inflation, which is now merely twice what it’s supposed to be, rather than five times the target. The Sunak narrative on this, as on most things, is straightforward: when bad things happen, it’s someone else’s fault, and when good things happen, you should thank him. So inflation had gone up because of a global rise in energy prices, but fallen because of his personal determination.
The good news was that, having delivered this triumph, he was in a position to heroically cave in to his backbenchers
The good news was that, having delivered this triumph, he was in a position to heroically cave in to his backbenchers. “First cut inflation, then cut taxes,” he explained, claiming that this had been the plan all along. It’s hard to imagine that, 18 months ago, he would have regarded inflation hitting 4.6 per cent as the moment things were going so well that he could afford a tax cut, but now he’s stuck between a coming election and angry MPs. As ever when announcing a retreat, he tried to make it sound brave. “It takes political courage to take the difficult but right decisions for the long-term,” he pleaded.
Was anyone even listening? We learned that the news channels, faced with a Monday morning choice between the prime minister making a major speech on the economy and Sir Patrick Vallance discussing transmission vectors and interdepartmental committees, had gone with the scientist (GB News, ploughing its own furrow as ever, was hosting a discussion on Trans Teddies). In itself, this is a signal of how Sunak is losing his grip on the public conversation. First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then you’re an ex-prime minister.
Which brings us to Baron Dave of Chipping Norton, who popped up to be sworn into the House of Lords, wearing ermine robes that, while ridiculous, are still not as bad as a Bullingdon Club tailcoat. In his Oxford days, after he and his chums had trashed a restaurant, a cheque would arrive the next day to pay for the damage. Now they’ve done the same thing to the country, but the cash has yet to be forthcoming. Well, we shouldn’t be apologetic.
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