The government moves in mysterious ways. Only on Tuesday, it had been unable to find an extra £5m to secure a deal with Andy Burnham and other local leaders to take Greater Manchester into tier 3. And on Wednesday there had been no money available for the poorest children, who will tiresomely insist on still wanting to be fed when not in school, to get free meals during the holidays up until next Easter. But on Thursday the Magic Money Tree was dripping with cash.
John Crace www.theguardian.com
Rishi Sunak has only been chancellor for about eight months, but I’ve already lost count of how many budgets he’s delivered since March. We must be into double figures by now. His winter economy plan that was announced at the tail end of last month hasn’t even survived till the end of autumn – and is now on to its third iteration.
Some may see this as a weakness in strategic planning. A failure to predict what was only too obvious to most of the rest of the country. But Sunak prefers to give his policies a more positive spin. He likes to see himself as the Man in the Know; someone who can react to fast-changing events at speed. After all, who could possibly have guessed that the UK – along with the rest of Europe – was heading for a second wave of coronavirus? Other than the government scientists who had been saying just that for months.
So Sunak was back in the Commons to deliver yet another round of financial help for businesses affected by Covid-19. The costings could wait for another day, as Sunak prefers not to let the details of how he will eventually pay for things – austerity or higher taxes – take the gloss off his moment in the limelight. First was a bailout for all businesses affected by being in tier 2. This was backdated to August just to prove that he wasn’t just bothered about London and the West Midlands, but really, really cared about the north-west too. If he’d announced all this just a week ago, he could have saved the government a world of pain.
Then there was going to be more help for businesses who would now only have to pay 5% of the wages of employees who only worked one day per week. This wouldn’t make the worker any better off and more likely to be able to pay the bills, but it would at least make it more likely they still had a job. Which was something. And finally the government was going to double the support for the self-employed from 20% to 40%, so they would also go broke a little less quickly.
The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about the new proposals as Sunak seemed to expect. She called them “too little, too late” and observed that the best part of a million jobs had already been lost as a result of the government not having acted sooner. Nor did she wholly buy the idea that the measures weren’t being driven by London and the West Midlands and that the north-west had been tacked on as an expedient afterthought.
What was required, she concluded, wasn’t the whole country gradually edging its way into tier 3: it was a “circuit breaker” to halt the rise in infections. Though this did rather presume that the government could introduce an effective test-and-trace system. Even as she spoke, the latest statistics were published showing performance going from bad to worse.
But Rishi wasn’t here to listen to any of the naysayers. He is a man with the effortless self-belief and thin-skinned vanity of a multimillionaire who is never likely to experience financial hardship and just wanted to lap up the plaudits of the crowd. He got unexpectedly tetchy when accused of going for a cheap photo opportunity in Wagamama – Sunak doesn’t do anything on the cheap – and instead chose to wallow in the love of his own benches. This was his day. His moment in the sun and nobody was going to spoil it. At times like this, he gives the impression he believes his brand is bigger than that of his own party.
The fawning proved far too much for Boris Johnson, who had appeared for the opening half-hour, and he sloped off just as Andrew Mitchell was declaring his undying love for the chancellor. There’s only space for one narcissist in the room when Boris is around. So just as well the prime minister had gone awol, otherwise he would have had to listen to Tory Matt Vickers describe Rishi as “the man, the myth, the legend”. Sunak could only nod in agreement.
What no one mentioned of course, was that we had been here countless times before. Each of Sunak’s previous recent budget statements, which had proved to be hopelessly inadequate, had been received with nothing but adulation. But that was then and this is now. The past wasn’t just a foreign country it was a nonexistent country. And when, in a month or so’s time, Sunak came to the Commons to announce yet more measures, they too would be greeted with the excitement and shock of the new.
The battle of the egos was resumed later in the afternoon when Johnson and Sunak combined to give a joint Downing Street press conference. And though neither had anything new to say, it was Sunak who was the clear winner on points. Boris merely repeated his shtick of mumbling incoherently while casually mixing in the odd lie about anything that caught his fancy – he looks increasingly fed up with the job and only capable of dealing with a reality that he would like to exist – while Rishi sounded totally confident and at ease. Even when he is having to explain why his previous measures have been inadequate, he manages to maintain the pretence that his mistakes were deliberate.
Still, Sunak shouldn’t get too relaxed about being top dog. Because the person showing most sincerity was Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser and the third person in the room. And though he was doing his best to be optimistic, he didn’t have much cheer on offer. The test-and trace system was still a mess and that was really the only way out of the current situation. We were stuck with the virus, and we were stuck with a government committed to a tiering system from which no region was likely to escape downwards anytime soon. It was going to be a long winter.