As Boris Johnson’s government unravels, there is something amid the general chaos that stands out. A few lines in the resignation letter of no-longer-Chancellor Rishi Sunak sounded sinister. It was peppered with a “Blitz Spirit” language that may reveal more about Britain’s future than any of the drama surrounding the (current) Prime Minister this week.
Sunak wrote that the kind of economy he wants to see can only be achieved if ministers “work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions”. He added: “I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one.”
Read Rishi Sunak’s resignation letter in full:
The implication is that Johnson has been too eager to please, to spend public money and to avoid outlining the true impact of inflation. Furthermore, it suggests that the only way through this is for people to struggle.
This framing reminded me of the kind of language we used to hear from George Osborne who, as chancellor from 2010-16, cut public services and Whitehall budgets.
“We’re all in this together,” he said, just before he slashed parts of the state most vital to society’s poorest people. The government had to make “difficult choices”, he insisted over the years. There would be “sacrifices”, “everyone was going to have to play their part”, and he wanted to tell “people the truth about the hard road ahead”.
In a 2012 speech, Osborne himself evoked the Blitz Spirit – of battling towards a painful post-crash recovery together: “We need an effort from each and every one. One nation working hard together.”
Sunak, with an eye on the Tory leadership in the future, is channelling this flawed outlook: that the UK economy is a household budget, and it’s only moral and right to let a true fiscal conservative balance it – no matter the human cost.
The government can’t control inflation, but it is disingenuous to suggest everyone must suffer as a consequence. It can of course mitigate the impact of rising prices in a fairer way, if it wants to. Sunak decided not to raise benefits in line with inflation, for example – the easiest way to target the worse-off. (The idea this would have contributed to spiralling inflation is “bollocks” in the words of one Bank of England economist I’ve spoken to, by the way. Notably, the state pension has been increased despite supposed inflation fears.)
Nevertheless, the past shows us that the British public responds positively to appeals for sacrifice (and, in the case of the pandemic, admirably so). Sunak’s reputation may have been damaged by the paucity of his Spring Statement and his wife’s tax affairs, but until recently he was the most popular Westminster politician with name recognition in the country. The public could warm to him again, and his call for forbearance in tough times may resonate.
While Johnson has been a poor prime minister, some liberal Tory MPs of the One Nation persuasion are concerned that his successors could bring austerity back, according to a source in that faction. It’s clear from the language in Sunak’s letter that, as a thwarted austerity chancellor, he’d like a crack at being an austerity prime minister instead.