Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Budget 2021
27 October 2021

Rishi Sunak’s 2021 Budget is one giant U-turn

The Chancellor’s dramatic public spending increases have left some Tory MPs demoralised – and sent Labour scrambling.

By Stephen Bush

The run-up to Rishi Sunak’s Budget was dominated by speculation that it would contain at least one U-turn: something to address the growing concern about untreated sewage being pumped into the United Kingdom’s rivers and oceans, or a measure to alleviate the pain from the £1,040-a-year cut in Universal Credit

In the end, Sunak delivered a speech that was essentially one long U-turn: across the public realm, he unveiled real-terms spending increases, in many cases to parts of the state that haven’t received a real-terms increase since the Conservatives entered office in 2010. The headline he was seeking was “the biggest increase in more than a decade”: Labour will want to it to be that this Budget is also the first real spending increase in more than a decade. 

Although much in the Budget was at one with the Conservative approach over the past 11 years – the planned cut to Universal Credit remains in place, while fuel duty remains frozen – this Budget repudiated the post-2010 approach to spending much more than anticipated, and much more than Sunak’s stirring conference speech defence of his predecessors – George Osborne, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid – led many to expect. 

The British state will still be smaller in 2024 than implied by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s plans in 2010, but it will be much larger than implied by Osborne, Hammond or even Sunak in his March Budget

The scale of the U-turn was one reason why the reaction of Conservative MPs was more muted than usual for a Budget: these aren’t the applause lines that Tory MPs expect or in many cases want. But it also confused Labour. The Budget response is one of the hardest jobs for the opposition because of the absurd theatre of the event (the first time that the leader of the opposition hears the Budget speech is the same as everyone else, and Rachel Reeves, filling in for the self-isolating Keir Starmer, couldn’t even pick the brains of the shadow chancellor because she is the shadow chancellor). But it was made even harder today simply because a lot of Sunak’s measures were policies Labour has been calling on the government to adopt for some time. 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Reeves tried to move the debate to where Labour wants the political battle to be: that the Conservatives are now the party of high tax, low economic growth and poorly-run public services, and that Labour will be the party of lower tax, high economic growth and well-run public services. 

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

The Conservative fear – including among Sunak’s closest allies – is that an argument over who is best at running public services naturally favours Labour, because it is generally seen as being better at that than the Tories. But Labour’s vulnerability is that an argument about who is best at delivering economic growth goes the other way. Whichever party emerges stronger from the new debate, it is certain that Sunak’s Budget has changed the nature of the political battle between the two parties.

[see also: The gulf between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak should worry the Tories]