There was an air of anticipation in the House of Commons. On the Conservative benches, MPs were squeezed in buttock to buttock. James Cleverly made his way along the front and decided he could see a gap between Grant Shapps and Claire Coutinho, who were deep in conversation. He attempted to sit down between them without interrupting, but the new Home Secretary is not a small man, and the effect was like an extremely polite grizzly bear trying, with great diffidence, to take a seat at your picnic table and nab the last of the cucumber sandwiches. Shapps and Coutinho leaned forward to continue their chat across Cleverly’s chest, while the man in the middle tried unsuccessfully to radiate the air of someone half the size.
We had gathered for the Autumn Statement, the centrepiece of this week’s Rishi Relaunch. Perhaps this was the reboot that was going to make the difference. Behind the Speaker’s chair, the prime minister was waiting to enter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who turns out still to be Jeremy Hunt.
It was all terribly wholesome
Those of us who first encountered Hunt over a decade ago when he was an affable but hapless Culture Secretary continue to do a double-take when we learn that he’s now in charge of the nation’s finances. But then we remember Hunt was appointed not because of any great grasp of economics but because Liz Truss needed someone who looked plausible in the role. And indeed, if you knew nothing about Hunt and little about what a chancellor does, he fits the Central Casting description of “senior British government minister”: tall, posh and a man.
He’s terribly nice, of course. Up in the gallery, his wife and three children looked on. He made a remark about it being her birthday, and she looked embarrassed, and the children looked delighted, and Tory MPs cooed. It was all terribly wholesome.
I had momentarily forgotten until he reminded us of it, but Hunt actually ran for the Conservative leadership twice, quite hopelessly, on a ticket of being a tall wholesome posh chap who looked plausible. In another decade, that might have been enough, but he was beaten first by Boris Johnson and then by Truss, Tories having decided they preferred “whiff of lunatic danger” to “potential son-in-law”. Of course, since last week’s reshuffle, the government is all sons-in-law. Sunak, Baron Dave, Hunt: they hold their jobs on the basis of plausibility, rather than actual ability.
Does this matter? Well, let’s turn to the meat of Hunt’s statement. To hear him tell it, everything is going rather swimmingly. “The economy has grown,” he began. “Real incomes have risen.” It all sounded great. “Under this prime minister,” Hunt went on, “we take decisions for the long term.” And then, if the polls are still tanking, we take different decisions, he somehow failed to add.
It was a speech full of subtext, only some of it intentional. Of course, with a general election looming in his future, there were attacks on Labour, and electoral bribes, including a national insurance cut brought forward by three months so that people will notice it from the start of the year. But who was the target of all those mentions of the importance of the Office for Budget Responsibility and the dangers of irresponsible tax cuts? Not Labour’s Rachel Reeves. Hunt talked about how debt had been out of control when he took on the job, but again, this wasn’t an attack on the opposition. Truss was nowhere to be seen, but it is possible that Sunak plans to fight the next election on his record of saving Britain from the damage done to it by the Conservative Party.
As he went on, Hunt became monotonous. His children tried their best to stay interested. Daddy, after all, was doing something very exciting. But also, as it turns out, very dull. Around the time he got to enterprise zones, we were all struggling. Perhaps there is a speaker who could make full expensing for capital investment sexy, but it’s not Hunt.
“Every big business was once a small business,” he intoned. And some big businesses, like some political parties, can become small again. Still, when he finished, Conservative MPs cheered. He’d given them something to talk to voters about.
He looked nervous, stayed away from the details, and kept things brief
Or had he? Reeves, rising to reply, showed that she actually can do economics. “Growth has been revised down next year, the year after, and the year after that too,” she began. Mortgages were going up, taxes were, whatever he said, doing the same, and inflation was twice target. Hunt’s statement was “the 11th Conservative economic growth plan from the fifth prime minister, the seventh chancellor and the ninth business secretary.” Sunak wriggled around in his seat. When Reeves began talking about the Truss era, he scoffed and heckled, amazed that she didn’t realise that had been a completely different Conservative Party than the current one. Tories must hope voters are more discerning.
Unlike after a Budget, Hunt had to reply to Reeves, and we saw that it’s one thing to read a statement your officials have drafted for you, but quite another to do this stuff off the cuff. His one joke about Reeves agreeing with some of his plans, that she was “copying and pasting in the national interest”, wasn’t good enough to be used twice in successive sentences. He looked nervous, stayed away from the details, and kept things brief. We had gone beyond the limits of his plausibility. Maybe the next relaunch will go better.
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