“The world upgraded; Britain downgraded” was how Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, put it. The International Monetary Fund’s headline assessment was bad enough: the UK is forecast to be the world’s worst-performing major economy this year – worse even than sanctions-hit Russia.
Alone, Britain’s economy is expected to contract by around 0.6 per cent. More difficult for Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, is the IMF’s reasoning. The UK is underperforming relative to other economies, it says, because of “tighter fiscal and monetary policies and financial conditions, and still-high energy retail prices”.
For many Tory MPs, and not just on the party’s hard right, this is proof positive that Hunt must now cut taxes and that the government’s energy support package hasn’t been effective enough.
For them, tax cuts in next year’s Budget will be too late, too close to the next general election to be effective: they have to come now. Hunt, backed in the Commons by the Treasury minister James Cartlidge earlier today, is sticking to his plan, and his conviction that cutting inflation is the “tax cut” that matters most.
But the pressure is building and it looks as if a collision is coming. Liz Truss is marching round Westminster with an unsettling smile on her face. The Trussies are preparing to go public, admitting mistakes of timing and footwork but insisting the direction was right all along. One former Tory minister – not of their number – said of the IMF growth verdict: “It’s just utterly, utterly miserable. It’s bleak. How do we ever come back from this?”
Sunak is facing a confluence of unfortunate events. Most important is the growing debate on economic policy ahead of the Budget on 14 March. But after the sacking of the still-angry Nadhim Zahawi, the Prime Minister faces a much more ticklish personnel decision over the future of Dominic Raab, his deputy, who now has to answer a wide range of bullying accusations from civil servants (which he denies).
The Zahawi sacking, being about money, transparency and process, was relatively straightforward. The Raab issue is not. It’s about his character, the kind of man he is. He isn’t simply accused of punching down at those unable to defend themselves. He seems to punch sideways too, and when the mood takes him, upwards as well. He is an impatient, hot-tempered man.
The question facing Sunak is whether having that kind of temperament, being unable to control his irritation, is now a sacking offence. It may be unfortunate, it is certainly ineffective. But should you be sacked for your personality in jobs where you’re surrounded by civil servants you find obstructive or obtuse? Politics has long attracted a wide range of hot-tempered and difficult people, women as well as men. It’s a pressure cooker world. The wider culture, which once tolerated extraordinary levels of bullying at work, is changing fast, but should a Tory prime minister take a lead?
Plenty of Conservative MPs think not, and that a further senior sacking would be simply throwing a colleague to the press. Jacob Rees-Mogg has already gone public in not-too-coded terms, warning against being “too snowflakey” about this. Raab may not have a wide variety of public supporters but he has been around for a long time in different cabinets, does have friends and could be a dangerous enemy on the back benches for a Prime Minister struggling to hold his backbenches together.
On the other side are all the obvious arguments about leading by example and cleaning up a profession long dominated by harassment. The arguments that go down well on the Tory benches are probably not the ones that go down well with floating voters. This is an extremely difficult call for Sunak.
Under intense pressure to find more money for the UK’s woefully weak army, the Treasury will nonetheless hold the line on major tax cuts or spending increases this spring. This is a government of white knuckles and cold sweat, tensed and trying nervously to hold on through a long winter short of good news.
The number of Tory MPs who ask whether Sunak is simply too inexperienced for a horrendously difficult task is growing. As dry January slides into febrile February, it seems equally clear that the sensible thing for the Conservative Party to do is hold its nerve – and that it won’t.
[See also: Is Jeremy Hunt the Tory saviour?]