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2 April 2022

Rishi Sunak has been playing politics on easy mode and now he can’t cope

The Chancellor’s petulance over difficult questions on the cost-of-living crisis is a reminder he’s never before had to face them.

By Jonn Elledge

After watching the sudden deflation of Rishi Sunak’s popularity over the last few days, I’ve been left with a question. Late last week someone close to the Chancellor told the Sun that he had been “particularly annoyed by the BBC’s focus on help for Universal Credit claimants”. On Thursday we learnt from the Times that Sunak is annoyed with the Office for Budget Responsibility, apparently because its doom-laden economic forecasts had overshadowed his lovely Spring Statement.

My question is: who is doing his briefing? If it’s someone close to Liz Truss, or another plausible rival for the leadership, then big tick, congrats on making the Chancellor look like a petulant child. But if, as seems more likely, it’s someone in Sunak’s team, or even the man himself, then all they’ve managed is to sow yet more doubt about whether he’s up to the job. He’s got a worse PR strategy than the norovirus.

In the unlikely event you’ve missed all this, some headlines. As of Friday, the energy price cap has risen from around £1,300 for the average household per year to nearly £2,000; forecasts suggest it could plausibly increase by the same again by the autumn. At the same time, food prices have started going up, housing costs have continued rising and inflation could be on course to hit 8 per cent. Money Saving Expert’s Martin Lewis has described the resulting cost-of-living crisis as the worst he’s seen this century. He did not exclude either Covid or the 2008 financial crash.

To help ameliorate all this, Rishi Sunak has offered some money off fuel duty (which is not enough to counteract the increase in prices and is, anyway, of little use if you don’t own a car). He’s also offering to scrap VAT on measures like loft insulation and rooftop solar panels (which is meaningless if you don’t own a house). He has offered literally nothing for Universal Credit claimants, whose costs are rising just like everybody else’s, and the government has not backed down on its decision to scrap free lateral flow tests, even though “yet more Covid” hardly seems the strategy to get us out of this hole.

And then, at the end of his Spring Statement, the Chancellor announced plans to take a penny off the basic rate of income tax in March 2024 — conveniently just before the next election, but inconveniently a potential £4,000 in energy costs away — and smiled like he expected applause. He didn’t get any. According to YouGov, just 6 per cent of the public think he’s done enough to help with the increasing cost of living, and his already flagging popularity immediately descended to an all-time low. It was roughly at this point in proceedings that someone began briefing that it was all the fault of the BBC.

Much of the commentary about all this has invoked that ancient Red Wall curse, “out of touch”. It’s true that Sunak’s personal wealth is so great that mere millionaires feel shabby in his presence, but I’m not sure that’s it. You can be orders of magnitude harder up than the Chancellor and still struggle to comprehend the implications of the fact that, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, his budget will cost families in poverty around £446 a year. For many, that will mean choices between clothing or heating, debates over how much different family members need to eat. If you are used to having money, even if it feels like not enough money, the experience of real poverty is impossible to grasp.

So I think there’s another reason why a man who just a few weeks ago was the most popular politician in Britain has managed to fumble things so abysmally: his political career has been played entirely on the easy setting. He has never known opposition (entering parliament in 2015), and rose from nowhere to become Chancellor aged just 39, arriving just in time to become the hero who saved the British economy from Covid. His obvious petulance at being asked difficult questions is a reminder of the fact he’s never before had to face them. He reminds me of the last generation of ministers produced by New Labour, advisers whose careers had been built entirely on the patronage of the leader, and whose political instincts turned out, the moment they spoke to a voter, to completely and utterly suck.

Sunak is clearly baffled by his own failure. He found goodies for his voters, while denying them to those on benefits; he found things that could be spun as tax cuts, even as he set the country on course for the highest tax burden since the war. Such tricks, in living memory, have always worked before. Surely, he must think, this is how the game is played?

But as the cost of living crisis bites, empathy increases. Not so long ago Sunak’s claim that £25bn is too much to spend on keeping benefits in line with inflation would have resonated with voters worried about the deficit; now, many just see a government that won’t protect the country’s children. The world has changed, and the Chancellor doesn’t understand. And so instead he blames the BBC.

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