Back in August 2020, my colleagues on the New Statesman Podcast and I noted a phenomenon we had never come across before: hearing the chancellor’s name in restaurants.
Everywhere you went for dinner, you could overhear people saying “thanks Rishi!” or read his name on posters and menus.
These were the days of “Eat Out to Help Out”: a summer subsidy from the Treasury to pay half of our bill when eating out. The then-chancellor Rishi Sunak was trying to reinvigorate the UK’s economy after the first Covid-19 lockdown.
While it made for a thrillingly cheap summer for some of us, it was a policy that resulted in more Covid infections, according to research by the University of Warwick. A four-week second lockdown followed in November that year, Christmas was hastily cancelled for large parts of the country, and a long winter lockdown was imposed the following January.
The scheme was not simply designed to keep the restaurant industry afloat: if it was only that, it would’ve applied to takeaways as well as dining in, as the Sunday Times investigative journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott point out in their excellent book about the UK government’s pandemic response, Failures of State (2021). No, it was designed to incentivise people to stop being fearful about going out and about again: to feel comfortable in public spaces, around other humans, and perhaps to participate in other aspects of public life (the office, public transport, etc).
This policy was a public manifestation of Sunak’s private concerns: pandemic restrictions were crippling the economy, he argued behind the scenes, and he wanted the country to open up as soon as possible. He also gave a speech in September 2020, calling on the public to “learn to live with it and live without fear”.
In an interview with the Spectator this week, Sunak has publicly voiced his misgivings about restrictions, saying the government deferred too much to scientists, was wrong to scare people about the virus, and should have weighed up the costs of locking down. While this intervention may be perceived as part of his faltering Tory leadership campaign, it is also – unlike some of the increasingly desperate policy announcements he’s made – sincere.
Yet even on this, Sunak is victim to the “vibes theory” of politics espoused by the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh and Stephen Bush, my former colleague to whom I chatted about Sunak’s personal association with pandemic policies on that New Statesman Podcast episode back in 2020.
A Brexiteer who reads as a Remainer and an underdog who reads as a front-runner, Sunak is also a lockdown sceptic who reads as a leading advocate of the Covid consensus. OK, some voters may lump him in with Boris Johnson and Downing Street parties after he was fined, but in general he is remembered for “rescuing” us during the pandemic. This perspective still comes up as a positive point in focus groups, even if his reputation has been sullied since.
After all, his announcement of the furlough scheme and other emergency measures, and his promise at that lectern during press conferences broadcasted to the country that he would do “whatever it takes”, were what made him the most popular Westminster politician in the country – and one of the best known.
One of my family members who was clap-for-carers committed to Covid measures far beyond their novelty appeal – and horrified every time the government tried opening up again – nevertheless loved Dishy Rishi. It’s a contradiction I’ve noticed in other voters I’ve spoken to over the years.
His comments to the Spectator may be intended to underline the core of his leadership pitch: that good leaders are honest about trade-offs. They may also be an attempt to blame the current economic chaos on a convenient villain (shutting up shop in the face of Covid-19), rather than accepting the shortcomings of the past decade-plus of an economic consensus he backs. Yet any electoral points he would hope to gain from this may be undermined by a reputation that precedes – and misleads us about – him.
[See also: How Boris Johnson comes back]