Well, that didn’t go so prettily, did it? Neither the House of Commons dramatics, nor the political theatre of a promised tax cut, saved Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement from being savaged by right, left and centre. There are big lessons to be learned.
First, if you are going to pull a rabbit from a hat, make sure it’s a real, live and twitching rabbit, and not the airy promise of a possible bunny in two years’ time. I imagine the Treasury expected “Rishi’s tax surprise” or some such to feature on every front page. Well, oops. People are getting pretty desperate about money. They need real help right now, not an election-focused snap of the fingers some time ahead.
The public has become (perhaps because of the pandemic, when we all focused on graphs) more arithmetically literate and harder to fool. This week’s grim statistical truths — that, for example, living standards will see the biggest fall since 1956-57, when records began — brushed aside all the sophisticated, clever-clever playbooks from Treasury teenagers.
People can see what’s coming on fuel bills and on food bills (in this global crisis we don’t talk enough yet about the rising cost of food, but we will). And they do the numbers.
The biggest mistakes in this statement — doing absolutely nothing noticeable for the poorest families, who will soon be in desperate straits; sticking with the National Insurance rise and announcing no new capital spending to strengthen Britain’s energy and military security — were compounded by a logical nonsense at its centre.
Sunak acknowledged the huge insecurities and unknowables ahead. Indeed the first part of his speech was excellent, a geopolitical sweep that made him look and sound like a prime minister rising to the scale of world events. But then things went downhill. Given these uncertainties, to make the judgement now that at the time of the next election he will be able to cut income tax may have seemed politically ”clever”, but it was in every other way incomprehensible.
It sounded like the old familiar politics unadjusted for new and scarier times. Meanwhile, a big opportunity has been missed. This could have been the moment to tell the British people a clear story about the economic and military threats our democracy faces and to prepare us for some of the hardship needed during the great rebuilding which is necessary.
As at the beginning of the 20th-century wars, this begins with social solidarity. We all need to be in it together. That means protecting the weakest. It continues with the clearing out of the whole dirty money-laundering system on which so much of the City of London has depended. It means proper protection for businesses as well as individuals, as energy prices spike. It means taking big decisions quickly about energy provision. In short, it’s the moment for a grand rethink and reset.
Party-political games about tax cuts simply look small by comparison. Had Sunak continued and ended his speech in the bold spirit he began it, this would have been a turning point in British politics. Today’s reaction from the public and media confirms that it wasn’t.
Observers on the right and left were, frankly, looking for something bigger. It’s easy to personalise this — to dismiss Sunak as a very wealthy Thatcherite, the offspring of Oxford and Stanford, bred by Goldman Sachs and hedge funds, and surrounded in the Treasury by pointy-heads not so very different from himself. But isn’t there also something badly out of date in the way these big Treasury moments are organised? I mean the obsessive secrecy, which goes far beyond the need for market security; the fusty drama of red boxes waved from Downing Street doorsteps, the focus on wrongfooting the opposition and the endless self-congratulatory theatrics of “but instead, today, Mr Speaker, I can announce…”
If the Treasury had been more open about its thinking, engaged with economists across the spectrum and listened intently to critics before huddling down with the fine detail, perhaps some of this week’s mistakes would not have been made. Magic Circle-like conjury and Treasury theatrics benefit nobody, not even, it seems today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself.
He will be back at the dispatch box before long with new measures. He’s a clever man and a likeable man. Let’s hope he’s also a man who is quick to learn, because this was not a good week.