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26 March 2020

Will Rishi Sunak’s support for the self-employed go far enough?

A comprehensive package would be a political headache for opposition parties.  

By Stephen Bush

Rishi Sunak will announce measures today to support the self-employed during the United Kingdom’s period of lockdown. 

The exact details – and whether they go far enough – are unclear, but Treasury officials think they’ve successfully drawn up a comprehensive package. If so, that will have two consequences: the first is that it ought to further boost the already pretty high levels of social distancing in the United Kingdom. “In God we trust, but everyone else needs to bring data to the table”, a saying that Sunak picked up from his father-in-law, applies well here: the reliable information we have is not photos of supposedly packed parks but journey data from the transport and rail networks, which continue to show big collapses in the number of people travelling year-on-year. A relatively tiny number of people are flouting the guidelines – but most people are doing the right thing. 

The second political consequence is that, if Sunak gets it right today, the opposition parties are going to find their lives get significantly harder. Boris Johnson is benefiting from the global trend for incumbent leaders to see big surges in their support – even Donald Trump, whose handling of the crisis has been wildly incompetent and whose United States is well on the way to becoming the new global epicentre of the pandemic, is enjoying his highest approval ratings since the early days of his presidency. But he’ll also benefit from the fact that there will be no legislation to scrutinise and few measures to oppose. 

That reality is one reason why the fate of the self-employed has become the central topic of political debate over the last few days. It was the focus of Jeremy Corbyn’s final appearance as Labour leader at PMQs. The Liberal Democrats co-ordinated a cross-party letter. The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called for a universal basic income. 

One reason for that is that if there’s no income protection for the self-employed, there’s no immunological protection for anyone else. But the other is that without it, those parties would have had very little to say as they agree with the overall direction the government is now taking. 

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What’s the purpose of an opposition party when the government has no agenda other than virus-fighting? That the SNP government in Scotland and the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Wales are working pretty well with the national government on virus-fighting is an endorsement of devolution but it makes the challenge for Keir Starmer, Ian Blackford and whoever emerges as Jo Swinson’s successor even trickier. 

So while opposition MPs will hope that this evening’s announcement eases the pressure and anxiety for their constituents – they will know that it will make their jobs, already transformed by this crisis, much harder. 

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