Cynical politics? Certainly. Rishi Sunak’s £15bn package of support for families struggling with fuel and food bills, funded in part by a 25 per cent windfall tax on the energy companies, was beautifully timed to divert attention away from Boris Johnson’s little local difficulty with Sue Gray yesterday (25 May). No wonder Giant Haystacks was looking so happy on the Treasury bench by Thursday lunchtime.
For Sunak, the embarrassment of having to steal a popular and sensible Labour policy was only evident in his refusal to use the phrase windfall tax. It wasn’t really the opposition’s blunt weapon, he claimed, but a different kind of tax entirely. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, quite rightly had fun mocking that. It was a bit like painting a white spot on your cat and calling it a dog.
But the bigger problem is now Labour’s. In a matter of minutes it lost the only truly sizeable, widely understood and popular policy that currently divides the party from the Tories. Worse still, the Conservative offer appears to be almost twice as generous as the opposition’s previous one. In the context of the cost of state support during the Covid-19 pandemic, this new initiative is truly big. It includes slightly more than £10bn of additional – if temporary – borrowing.
It will be noticed. Eight million households on benefits will get £650 paid directly into their bank accounts, and at least £1,200 in total additional support. Pensioners that receive winter fuel payment will get an extra £300, alongside the return of the triple lock to all state pensioners, while the disabled get an additional £150.
Sunak said again and again that no government could help everybody completely, and many people will still be struggling and worried as their energy bills rise by around another £800 in October. But this was an initiative big enough to leave the Tory right fearful of its inflationary implications and the ever-rising tax burden. “Throwing red meat to socialists,” huffed the aristocratic Tory landowner Richard Drax MP.
For my part, I was reminded of the saying by the Irish writer Joyce Cary: that the only good government is a bad government in a hell of a fright. (A necessarily complicated sentence follows – forgive me.) If there is any truth in the suspicion that the imminence of the report into No 10 lockdown parties provoked someone to suggest to Ofgem that it suddenly announce the likelihood of a further 40 per cent increase in energy bills this October, thereby forcing Sunak’s statement this week, then families up and down the land should raise a glass to Sue Gray.
Ouch. It takes a horribly suspicious mind to imagine such a convoluted conspiracy. But sad to say, the atmosphere of Westminster politics in 2022 makes thinking like that almost a job requirement in SW1. We must, however, be wary of calling for urgent help for struggling families and then refusing to take “yes” for an answer. Whatever the crabbed origins of this dramatic policy swerve by the government – which does much to compensate for the political and social failure of the Spring Statement – Mr Sunak has done the right thing.