The summer statement today wasn’t just a big day for Rishi Sunak, or for the country’s economic recovery. It was also a huge moment in the professional trajectory of Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor.
This was her most high-profile political appearance to date, with the unenviable task of delivering the opposition’s snap response to the measures introduced in today’s statement, one of the demands that makes the role of shadow chancellor famously the most difficult in British politics.
Her appearance today came against the backdrop of some very faint rumblings of briefings against her, and also of a more general sense of anticipation and interest in the still-unanswered question of how she will approach her role.
The briefings, firstly, mainly consist of suggestions of “growing tensions” between her and Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary. They are, in a sense, more hostile to Miliband than to Dodds, in that he is painted in some reports as hampering the shadow treasury’s efforts to project economic responsibility. But they are also damaging to Dodds, in their suggestion that she is being shadowed for her shadow chancellor role, and that Miliband has been successful in parking his tanks on her lawn.
There is, more generally, the question as to whether Dodds takes too conciliatory an approach to politics to have real influence in the role of shadow chancellor. At its most obviously gendered, this amounts to the not-very-helpful question of whether she is “too nice” for the role, but there is more to it than that. As one senior female Labour MP put it when rumours of Dodds’ appointment first began: “Anneliese is very able, but she doesn’t really have any politics.”
The extent to which this is true, and, if it is, whether it is an impediment to doing the job well, is the question that ought to preoccupy people in considering Dodds as shadow chancellor. Dodds did, genuinely, work well on her predecessor John McDonell’s shadow treasury team, and does, genuinely, command high regard and warmth from all parts of the parliamentary party, including the Corbynite left. She said in an interview with the New Statesman that she is “just… Labour”. Many will view that as a breath of fresh air in a divided party, others as an impossibility, and others again as a fundamentally conciliatory approach to politics that won’t lead to the shadow chancellor taking issues up with Starmer and fighting to stamp her own identity on the role (there, again, comes the potential risk of being dwarfed by Miliband, desperate to stamp his own vision on to Labour’s plans for a green recovery). To put it another way: she doesn’t have any political enemies within Labour – does that mean she doesn’t have firm enough views?
Dodds will no doubt have been aware of these rumblings and questions as she took to the dispatch box today. But if anything, they spurred her on.
There is, fundamentally, little to criticise in the substance of the Chancellor’s summer statement today. There will be political disagreements about stamp duty or similar tax incentives, but most of the measures – a scheme to kickstart the under-25s into work, vouchers for restaurants – are incontrovertibly good things. What matters is whether these measures collectively are sufficient for the scale of the challenge ahead.
Dodds got it right in placing these measures within their broader context. An economic recovery is dependent on a solid public health response; consumer confidence is dependent on confidence that the virus is being contained. Ultimately, Sunak’s success is dependent on the success of his cabinet colleagues in responding to the crisis in the round. We have one of the highest death rates in the world and are among the worst-hit economies in the industrial world. Dodds was correct to show the stark bigger picture, and the inadequacy of economic stimulus from one hand of government if it is being undermined by an inadequate test and trace system on the other.
She also highlighted the many questions that have been put off until the autumn, the sectors that are waiting for targeted support, and the risks of cutting off the furlough scheme in October with a “one size fits all” approach to different sectors of varying viability in the longer term.
It is a hard job to welcome a package of measures while fundamentally criticising their scope and ambition, but she got it right.
In tone, too, she showed a toughness we haven’t seen before, giving short shrift to the Prime Minister’s heckles, while showing a robustness and seriousness that her colleagues have praised all along, not to mention her easy familiarity with the economic and public health situations in other countries, from her academic background in comparative public policy.
While Keir Starmer has made a strong impression as Labour leader, enjoying high approval ratings and making a mark with his “forensic” PMQs performances, the jury has been out on Dodds, who has had fewer opportunities to make a mark. One imagines that she hasn’t been delighted by suggestions she is being overshadowed by Miliband, nor, if they have reached her, by those that she is “too nice” to do the job. It will be a long time before the fundamental questions of how political she is and how she works with Starmer will be answered. But she made it clear today she won’t be overshadowed without a fight.