We knew that Rishi Sunak was desperate to deliver this Budget, because the Treasury leaked so much of it to the media beforehand. The chancellor was clearly very proud, and on Wednesday the deputy speaker of the House of Commons was very peeved. Didn’t Sunak know that MPs expect to be told these things first?
That wasn’t all. Treasury officials also seemed to have worked hard to create a variety of publicity photos in which the chancellor didn’t look too short. On Wednesday, the tallest junior Treasury minister said he wouldn’t pose next to Sunak in Downing Street for the traditional pre-Budget photo because of agoraphobia. Was Brand Rishi’s stage management getting out of hand?
Of course not. Since he took office last February, the 41-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker has been the magically inflating chancellor: drop him in hot water and his stature grows. On Wednesday, he pretended that the scalding experience of the coronavirus pandemic had just been a warm fiscal bath.
He took the deputy speaker’s reprimands in his stride, and started barking phrases like “Debt down!”, which must be how they teach you at Goldman to explain that debt is up. The message of this Budget and spending review was that things were not as bad as they could have been. Yes, the vase had been smashed to pieces, but it was being glued back together. Or, as Sunak put it: “Our plan is working!”
In a recognition that managing the pandemic hasn’t in fact entirely gone to plan, other cabinet ministers were wearing masks. Sunak himself came dressed head to toe as early-stage Gordon Brown, his Labour predecessor. Spend, spend. Fiscal rules, fiscal rules. Small numbers became big numbers. Big numbers became world records. Years of under-investment were being rectified. Spending on school pupils would return to the level it was in 2010, when the Tories came to office.
Hold on. A few older Conservatives MPs might have noticed that their record in government was being shredded by their own side. Oh well, you don’t become a Tory politician for ideological consistency. Overall the government benches were having a good day. It’s a low bar — last Wednesday they were voting in favour of discharging raw sewage.
Boris Johnson was once described as the Heineken politician, reaching the parts that others could not. Sunak reached parts of the tax code that mere mortals hadn’t even heard of. He explained he would cut tonnage tax, which turns out to be something that shipping companies pay. In layman’s terms, it will mean that more ships may fly a UK merchant shipping flag before they are held up for weeks outside Folkestone due to labour shortages. Rule, Britannia!
In his next Brexit dividend, Sunak made beer and sparkling wine cheaper. Lowering the price of alcohol is the closest the Tory party has come to a childcare policy. Sunak himself is teetotal, and apparently prepared for his speech with a Sprite and a Twix.
The slogan for Twix is apparently “Try both”, and Sunak had obviously studied it carefully. Big state or small state? Both! At the end of his speech in which he pledged to increase public spending around 3 per cent a year in real terms, he casually mentioned that he didn’t believe in government very much, and hoped to start cutting tax before long. “Government should have limits,” he said. It was the Budget equivalent of those bedtime stories that end: “It was all just a dream.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer had tested positive for Covid just minutes before the session started, possibly the first time that the test and trace programme has done what the government hoped. Rachel Reeves, the Labour’s shadow chancellor, made the best of a bad hand. She fumed at the chancellor for barely mentioning climate change, just days before the UK hosts an international summit. Worse, Sunak had frozen fuel duty and cut tax on domestic flights.
But the chancellor was unruffled. He left the Commons, to a photo call with Johnson involving some tax-efficient alcohol. The world is burning, the cost of living is rising, but on Wednesday the Tories organised a drinking session in a brewery, and congratulated themselves for it.