“This government will never stop trying to help people,” Rishi Sunak told Parliament. For weeks, months, he had been doggedly refusing to start trying to help, perhaps wondering why those struggling with bills didn’t simply lay off one of their gardeners, or take fewer helicopter rides. Guys, when times are tight, it’s OK to ask the nanny to walk to the shops.
Next to him was Boris Johnson, looking shattered. Another heavy night of essential duties? The previous evening he’d suggested to Tory MPs that Britain would have lost the Second World War if Winston Churchill had been sober, the sort of surprising take that almost makes one want to open his biography of the great man to see if he included it.
But now the Chancellor had learned that there is something called a cost-of-living crisis, and he had come urgently to tell MPs about it. “This government will not sit idly by while there is a risk that some in our country might be set so far back they might never recover,” he said, ignoring the noises from Labour MPs who seemed to feel there had been a degree of idle by-sitting over the last year.
Opposition MPs were sarcastically delighted too when he talked about the importance of Bank of England independence. Johnson smiled a little wistfully, possibly thinking of the happy days of Tony Blair’s government, when all a chap had to worry about was making sure that his mistresses didn’t meet, and checking no one had mentioned Liverpool in the Spectator.
For the Labour benches, it was a jolly occasion. If you can’t be in government, you have to take comfort in watching the people who are in government painfully eat their own words. Labour had repeatedly called for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, and government ministers had repeatedly replied that this was a difficult, ill-thought-out idea that wouldn’t work. Now Sunak had come to tell us that he’d discovered an interesting way to raise money.
“The oil and gas sector is making extraordinary profits,” he revealed to “ooohs” and “ahs” from Labour. Mark Spencer, the Leader of the House, stared across at the opposition front bench like a nightclub bouncer daring them to come over and start something. Johnson, arms crossed, gave them a smile. Enjoy it, losers, he seemed to be thinking. The filth didn’t get me and neither did Sue, and these twerps behind me will be wondering what to do into the next century.
This new tax on undeserved profits was, Sunak was clear, in no way a windfall tax. “We will introduce a Temporary Targeted Energy Profits Levy,” he said. Labour could barely contain their delight. As a snappy alternative to “Windfall tax”, “TTEPL” is going to struggle.
Sunak stared into his folder as Reeves pointed out how long it had taken the government to adopt her proposal
The chancellor seemed to have judged that the best way to go through a u-turn was to lean into it. There was going to be money for all, he said. The complicated scheme he’d announced earlier in the year to cut energy bills and then get the money back off people later, which ministers had struggled to defend, was being replaced with a straightforward grant. The safest course for any Conservative MP asked to go on TV and defend unpopular policies is to say that they’ll stay at home and wait for them to be reversed.
Rachel Reeves, replying, was exultant. “Let there be no doubt about who is winning the battle for ideas,” she said to cheers. “It is the Labour Party!”
Sunak stared into his folder as Reeves pointed out how long it had taken the government to adopt her proposal. She mocked the TTEPL as “the policy that dare not speak its name”. The chancellor’s approach was “announce now, ditch later”. Labour would, she said, “look closely at today’s announcements,” though “most of them seem to have been written by us” as Yvette Cooper beamed. On the government benches, Chris Heaton-Harris, the Tory chief whip, looked at his phone, doubtless full of grateful messages from MPs who were made to vote against a windfall tax last week.
Over in Downing Street, the prime minister’s spokesman was undergoing a sadly deserved punishment beating in the Allegra Stratton Memorial Briefing Suite. Asked by a journalist why anyone should trust him, given that he’d spent months denying there had been any parties, he apologised. As many of the parties had happened pretty close to his desk, it has long been curious that he failed to realise that the lines he was reading out and the things the prime minister was telling the House of Commons were clearly false. But let us charitably assume that he, like the prime minister, left all these parties at the point at which they were still Essential Working Piss-Ups (© Metropolitan Police).
At any rate, he now realises that the empty bottles and vomit he stepped over when he arrived the next morning were in fact clues to a workplace culture that while very wrong was also very much no one’s fault. And with that, let us all move on.
In another time, this apology would have been followed by his resignation, but this is not a government in which wilfully failing to do the central part of your job is something people resign over. Where, after all, would it end? And so Johnson is left with a spokesman whom no one should believe. How appropriate.
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