Rishi Sunak made his summer statement this afternoon. The chancellor is never less than immaculately turned out. Skinny blue suit, coiffed hair, silver-grey tie gathered in a discreet knot, a white shirt that glowed like a snow-capped peak at noon. And he oozed board-room competence. One half expected the lights in the Commons to fall and a screen to be unrolled for a Powerpoint presentation. He draws his rhetoric from many sources. In today’s speech we got a hint of Thatcher:
‘I believe in the nobility of work. I believe in the inspiring power of opportunity.’
We heard a reminder of Blair:
‘I am not dogmatic. I believe in what works.’
There was a faint echo of Churchill:
‘Hardship lies ahead but no one will be left without hope.’
And we got a clear rebuke to a former Tory chancellor, Norman Lamont, who described unemployment as ‘a price well worth paying’ for economic recovery. Sunak:
‘I will never accept unemployment as an unavoidable outcome.’
He pays careful attention to his prose. Not for him the parroting of empty slogans, ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ and ‘build, build, build’.
Otherwise he might have called this speech, ‘bungs, bungs, bungs’
He splurged cash all over the shop. Stamp duty has been curbed. VAT has been cut for the hospitality sector. Businesses will get a thousand quid for every employee retained after the furlough scheme expires in October. Twice that sum will be available to firms that offer apprenticeships. His most memorable scheme, ‘Kickstart’, will provide jobs for 18-24 year olds. The wages of every ‘kickstarter’ will be covered by the government for six months.
Sunak repeated ‘kickstarter’ several times as if conferring a new label on a generation of busy young wealth-creators. It’s better than yuppie or snowflake.
And he announced a one-off ‘bistro bung’ this summer. During the month of August, we can all book a table at a restaurant and have our bill cut in half. The shortfall will be covered by the government. Great news for gluttons. And lots of work for paper-shufflers as well. The bureaucracy involved sounds onerous. However, the subsidy is to be capped at just £10, so the Ivy and the Café Royale are not about to be overwhelmed by mass-bookings. The chief beneficiaries of Sunak’s burger rebate will be fast-food joints with their fat-rich, sugar-crammed menus. Perhaps it’s not a great idea to effectively subsidise obesity during a pandemic which puts larger folk at greater risk. But this was Sunak’s only solecism.
As a technocrat he’s enormously impressive. And yet, he doesn’t stamp himself on the memory. He’s too amenable, too guardedly polished, too much the perfect son-in-law. Does the room seem emptier after he’s left?
Already some commentators have anointed him as Boris’s successor. An overhasty judgement, maybe. Sunak’s most notable achievements so far have been to announce hundreds of billions of pounds in emergency spending. Hardly a test of political dexterity or leadership.
And Boris made it clear how much he enjoyed his junior’s slick performance. The PM tucked himself comfortably into a corner of the Treasury bench and harrumphed loudly as the nattily-suited brainbox took centre-stage. Far from being threatened, Boris looked as happy as a football manager watching a classy new purchase bossing the midfield in a cup-tie.