‘Do you think people are stupid?’ Sunak shrugged. Of course he did | Jean Crace
RDo you remember the cheerful Rishi Sunak? The caring Dishy Rishi? The Chancellor who could look lovingly into the camera at Downing Street press conferences and promise he’ll have our backs? Always. The Good Samaritan who smiled as he dug deep behind the couch to pay our wages when our employers couldn’t?
This Sunak is long gone. The new Rishi is a much sharper iteration. Someone who leaves interviews when they don’t like the questions. Someone who is visibly irritated at having been forced to fill out a police questionnaire on the birthday of a boss he can’t stand – and who can’t stand him; the dislike is mutual. Someone who is starting to realize they may have missed the mark.
A month or two ago, Boris Johnson looked like he could be finished off at any moment and Sunak a leading contender to replace him. The Chancellor’s ratings among Conservative members were consistently high and he had an aura of competence. Now, not so much. Half of the cabinet, including the prime minister, are actively speaking out against him and the other half is simply biding its time to see how the cards play out.
But Sunak does not go down without a fight. The task could be much more difficult now that many of his colleagues have withdrawn their support and he must withdraw money from the country rather than distribute it, but he does not plan to turn around. And although his spring statement had been torn by most independent analysts – as well as some Tory MPs – he was determined to defend it to the death when he appeared before the House of Commons Treasury Committee.
Like most things the Chancellor does these days, it didn’t go particularly well. When your luck is not there, your luck is not there. Sunak started by going through the mini-budget headlines with committee chair Mel Stride. He had acted responsibly by not increasing borrowing, Sunak said. It clearly did not count the promised 1p income tax cut in 2024 as a guarantee of increased borrowing, as it only counted measures that were effective from that year. So if he had to squeeze the poorest, then it was their fault for not saving more money when he had been so generous during the lockdown. Or something like that.
None of this went over too well with the committee. Labour’s Angela Eagle observed that the government was presiding over the biggest drop in living standards since records began and that Sunak had chosen to push 1.3 million people into absolute poverty. Rishi immediately went on the attack. Well, what would she have done, he asked? Eagle dryly observed that the committee had not been convened to hear his choices.
Sunak then fell into fantasy. It was a tax-cutting budget, even though the current parliament’s tax burden was rising to its highest level since the 1940s. And no, it couldn’t do more to help recipients, because that would increase public borrowing. Look, it wasn’t his fault there was a global pandemic and energy and fuel prices were out of control. If some people should be cold, so be it. Absolutely right, said Anthony Browne, one of the few loyal Tories. If energy prices went down, people would only use more of it. And that would be bad for the planet.
“Well, Alison…” Sunak said as he spoke of SNP’s Alison Thewlis. He couldn’t have sounded more condescending if he had tried. The more the session went on, the more disconnected the Chancellor seemed. It was like we were in an economics seminar with Sunak there to score academic points. He seemed to have no idea he was talking about the lives of real people. For him, it was just a game.
He couldn’t even accept that the £200 heating loan was a loan, that he would put people in even more debt. Twice he insisted that it was a mythical entity, halfway between a grant and a loan. He reluctantly admitted, however, that the tax break on solar panels would not benefit those on Universal Credit. But it would be very convenient for its gym and swimming pool. And it would also show the poor what they could aspire to if they worked harder.
Labour’s Siobhain McDonagh asked him about his disastrous publicity stunt at Sainsbury’s garage. How was the Kia Rio? Now Sunak has become decidedly angry. He was very honored to have filled someone else’s car, he said. When people were struggling with rising prices, it was the duty of millionaires to help those less fortunate. And by the way, his second car was just a VW Golf. He didn’t mention what his first car was.
It was just the preliminaries. For after Sunak once again lamented his luck in having to deal with an unprecedented series of global events, McDonagh questioned why the UK was the only G20 country to raise the tax burden to such a moment. “Do you think people are stupid?” she asked. Sunak shrugged. Of course he did. That is why he had announced a tax cut to coincide with the next election. It would give everyone something to look forward to as they were hungry now.
The best came towards the end when Conservative Kevin Hollinrake tried to figure out why UK growth forecasts were so weak. Rishi took that on the chin. Everyone always knew that a change in trade relations with the EU would cause a blow to the British economy. Really? It was strange. Because no one remembered seeing “Brexit will make you poorer” on the side of the bus. Perhaps it had just been written in German.
Not that Sunak could bring himself to say the B-word, even when committee chairman Mel Stride followed that. “Oh no, no, no…” Rishi stammered, suddenly aware that he had revealed the government’s worst-kept secret. The 18-year-old Treasury official sitting next to Sunak has gone white. The Chancellor tried to cover it up by saying it was impossible to decouple Brexit from the pandemic, but Stride didn’t. The truth was there, black on white. The OBR had a graph showing that the UK was worse off because of Brexit.
For the first time, Sunak fell into near silence. I’m just waiting for the end. There were no photo ops to do. No flags to lay behind. If his budget hadn’t ended his career, then his Brexit indiscretion might be. His life was going from bad to worse. It would just be his chance to end the week with a fixed penalty notice for Partygate.