Rishi Week rolls on in Westminster. It seems to be taking place at two levels: there’s the stuff the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to talk about, and the stuff he doesn’t.
Just before noon, we got the stuff he does (and which Kwasi Kwarteng hasn’t yet already blurted out), as Sunak released another glossy promotional movie, titled “Plan For Jobs”. Viewers don’t need much help to work out which job he’s planning for. Monday’s film had a string section. Tuesday’s was plinky-plunky keyboards. One advantage of making it uneconomic for musicians to tour is that there are plenty on hand when you need some harmonies.
“Real Stories,” it began, and it featured business owners and young people talking about how hard the pandemic had been. But in those tough times, we learned, they had still been able to depend on one man. “I can remember on the Friday, all of us at home texting each other while we listened to Rishi Sunak’s announcement,” one café owner said. “Did you get that, it’s R-I-S-H-I,” she might as well have added.
In Johnson’s government, senior people announce the good news and juniors clean up the messes
Sadly, the Treasury hadn’t managed to find any interviewees who wished Sunak’s plan had looked a bit more plan-like, with measures announced in plenty of time, rather than being extended at the last possible moment, often after businesses had already laid people off. Nor have we yet had a moody clip of Marcus Rashford, explaining how getting money for hungry children was like squeezing blood from a stone. Perhaps they’re saving that for tomorrow’s movie.
Look at the big picture. The opposition has accused the government of not doing enough to support employment, but in two days the Treasury has released 10 minutes of film devoted entirely to promoting one person’s career. What more do people want?
Well, it turns out the people of Yemen would quite like food. Sadly, there’s going to be less of it about this year, due to the Stuff Rishi Doesn’t Want To Talk About.
The government announced last year it was abandoning the aid spending pledge on which it fought the election. Now MPs are finding out what that looks like. In Yemen, it means a 59 per cent fall in spending, from £214 million to £87 million.
Well, times are tough. The Treasury has to make hard spending decisions. For instance, it spent £849 million last August on Eat Out To Help Out, or “Rishi’s Dinners”, as they were keen for us to call it, and they’re now so embarrassed by the scheme that it has yet to get a single mention in any of his promotional videos.
It’s not that ministers aren’t interested in giving. For instance, Boris Johnson, who has heard that charity begins at home, is reportedly seeking donations to pay for the redecoration of his flat. Asked on Tuesday about the Bung A Bob For A Boris Bauble appeal, the prime minister’s office very determinedly refused to comment in a way that very much suggested the story was substantially correct.
At the same time, the Commons was discussing the decision to cut funding for Yemen.
It is characteristic of Johnson’s government that senior people announce the good news, and juniors get sent out to clean up the messes. Sunak certainly wasn’t going to be going near the Yemen announcement. There may well be videos from the country dubbed with soulful music in the coming months, but they’re unlikely to have Treasury branding.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, had been in the chamber minutes before, but was also sadly unable to stay to discuss the matter, perhaps due to some urgent karate practice. So it was the Minister of State, James Cleverly, who rose wearily to defend the decision.
Cleverly is a likeable soul, a former London Assembly member with the loyalty, enthusiasm and careful circumspection of a Labrador. He has been a supporter of Johnson’s for more than a decade. His punishment for this, one which Ancient Greek playwrights would surely have approved, is to have to defend Johnson’s government.
He gave us the facts: more than 20 million people needed help, 16 million of them were at risk of starvation, 47,000 were in famine conditions. The situation was complicated. “Money makes a difference,” he said. “We recognise that.”
Leading the attack on the cuts was another Tory, the former development secretary Andrew Mitchell. He was coldly furious. “The fifth richest country in the world is cutting support by more than half to one of the poorest countries in the world,” he said. “It is a harbinger of terrible cuts to come. A strategic mistake with deadly consequences.”
“This is not who we are,” Mitchell finished, and indeed every Conservative who spoke in the short session attacked the decision. But this is what they’re doing. And surely nothing embodies the values of their leader like making a populist decision and then leaving your subordinates to deal with the fall-out.
Tomorrow is Rishi Week Day Three: The Budget. There will be much talk of tough choices. There will be videos and logos and much self-promotion. Sunak will be keen to tell us of all that he is doing. He is much less likely to talk about who is paying the price.
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