Matthew Lynn

Rishi Sunak is turning into a Gordon Brown tribute act

Rishi Sunak is turning into a Gordon Brown tribute act
(Getty images)
Text settings

Lots of self-promotion. An avalanche of leaks. Fiddly tax changes that always somehow turn out to be an increase, plenty of creative double counting, and heavy spending on marginal seats, all wrapped up in a package designed to effortlessly transport its author into Number 10. Remind you of anyone? It is of course Gordon Brown, and one of his interminable Budget speeches, in his pomp. But it is also a pretty good description of Rishi Sunak. 

The Tory Chancellor is quickly turning into the political equivalent of one of those bands hamming up Abba covers on a Saturday night: a Gordon Brown tribute act. The trouble is that the country could use something a little more original right now.

Sunak's Budget yesterday was straight from the New Labour playbook. It was fiercely political, calculated to neutralise its opponents, rob them of any attacks, create telling dividing lines, wind up the extremes of his own party, and win over floating voters. 

It was dauntingly complex, with every tax rise accompanied by some allowance or other, cleverly ensuring that any argument over it immediately becomes so mind-numbingly complex even the guy with glasses from the Institute for Fiscal Studies can’t follow it. And it ticked all the right focus group boxes, with treats carefully allocated to every special interest group.

On that level, of course, it was brilliant. It was a consummately professional performance. On its own terms, it will no doubt work, just as Brown’s budgets ‘worked’ in the sense of winning election after election, and making sure their author took over as prime minister without the need for anything so bothersome as an election. 

But the problem is that those Budgets didn't do anything for the medium-term competitiveness of the economy, and neither will this one. The massive rise in corporation tax will, whatever the spin, deter some investment at precisely the moment we need it most, while the offsetting 'super-deduction' will simply distort it, encouraging companies to allocate capital to the wrong projects. 

Endless subsidies and grants will support failing industries (we really should just let Amazon finally kill off the High Street, for example), while furlough wastes money on dead-end, low-productivity jobs, when for the same spending we could be creating enterprise allowances and launching retraining programmes that would generate fresh wealth.

In fairness, there is the occasional glimmer of a good idea struggling to emerge from the mess. Freeports are one example: with the right encouragement, and extra tax breaks and a relaxation of labour laws, they could turn into free-wheeling enterprise hubs that businesses from Europe flock to. 

The review of listing rules is another; making it easier to float companies in London should mean a lot more exciting, high-margin work comes to the City, even as the EU insists the dull, barely-profitable stuff moves to Amsterdam. 

There are brief flashes of free market radical radicalism from ‘Team Rishi’, but they are quickly drowned out by all the rehashes. Like most tribute acts, Sunak would be a far more interesting performer if he threw in a few originals. But there isn't much sign of it yet. And a retread of the Gordon Brown years is hardly what the UK needs right now