Rishi Sunak thinks Boris Johnson goofed badly when he conspired to upend Commons standards procedures. And he agrees with his red wall colleagues that this appeared to place the government on the side of a privileged elite.
That is certainly the standard interpretation of his comment this week that the government needed to do better – and indeed unattributable briefings by an ally say that he regarded the episode as a ‘mistake’ which should be acknowledged by someone of cabinet rank.
But if red wall Tories are tempted to regard Sunak as the true keeper of their flame then I suggest they think again. Because while Johnson has indeed gaffed, the Chancellor has also recently announced a decision that may well imperil their re-election prospects.
In fact Sunak’s gaffe is potentially much more serious as it represents a direct assault on the self-esteem of millions of voters and their idea of basic fairness.
In his recent Budget, the Chancellor committed the government to several eye-catching policies, including a big uplift in the minimum wage, these days rebranded as the ‘national living wage’. But something that went unremarked upon was the reaffirmation of a target of raising the minimum wage as a share of average pay.
A 6.6 per cent uplift this year would, said Sunak, keep the government ‘on track for our target of two-thirds of median earnings by 2024.’ Many Tory MPs beamed with happiness, no doubt thinking this would further bolster the working-class parts of their new electoral coalition. But will it?
According to the OECD, the UK minimum wage was worth 34 per cent of mean earnings and 41 per cent of median earnings in the year 2000. It has since risen steadily as a share of these averages, hitting 48 per cent of mean earnings and 58 per cent of median earnings in 2020.