The House welcomed the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as he announced his spending commitments for the coming year. Rish the Dish delivered all kinds of goals and priorities for the UK but he left his personal plans in obscurity. Or did he? The Chancellor’s naked ambition may be sheathed in a Jermyn Street suit but his strategy is easy to read: knife the Honey Monster and evict him from his lair.
Today he was addressing himself to his colleagues in cabinet, and in the wider party, and he wanted to show political intelligence and presentational shrewdness. His critics have already accused him of betraying the NHS by freezing pay settlements for the next 12 months, and he dodged that bullet by guaranteeing to boost the earnings of a million health workers. He also promised to support the lowest paid across the board by hiking the minimum wage. Neat footwork. Every Tory now has a decent reply when attacked for starving NHS employees of money.
Foreign aid was his thorniest problem. He used a statistician’s dodge by selecting a figure that made his enormous cuts seem as mild as a passing headache. The budget will be reduced, he said blandly, from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. That sounds pretty minimal. Who’d complain if their income fell by 'one fifth of one per cent’? The reality is that he’s removing billions from the programme. But he gave that a positive spin as well. The UK will remain the second-highest spender on aid in the G7. A difficult issue, deftly negotiated.
Meanwhile, on the home front, he showed signs of turning into a tax-junkie who likes to spend, spend, spend. (His boss is already in thrall to this horrible addiction).
He announced a ‘new infrastructure bank’ to be based in the north of England. What a nightmare for the taxpayer. When the government buys anything, the supplier instantly doubles the price because he knows that the customer is spending someone else’s money. The new bank’s first infrastructure challenge will be to create its own headquarters in a hulking skyscraper made of tinted mirrors with a helipad on top. It could take years, and many millions of pounds, for the new body just to establish its own physical presence. Of course, Labour’s shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, welcomed this money-gobbling luxury. Her only complaint? It didn’t have enough money to burn. ‘The Chancellor must boost its firepower,’ she urged.
The Chancellor’s next slick-sounding initiative was the levelling up fund. ‘A new holistic place-based approach to the needs of local areas,’ he said. No doorstep canvasser would ever use that gluey phrase. A total of £4 billion will be available for local authorities ‘to bid directly to fund local projects'. Which sounds great. He added that three Whitehall departments will have to be consulted over every project along with the constituency MP. So it turns out to be a time-consuming paperchase that replicates procedures already in place. More gum in the works. Not good.
The Dish wound up by offering his philosophical vision. It’s not enough to announce spending plans, he said, because ‘the numbers can ring hollow'. What matters to voters is ‘the pride we feel in the places we call home.’ He likes that phrase. He used it twice. And he emphasised the power of the individual over the authority of government.
‘The spending is secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindliness and creativity it unleashes.’ That list of pious abstract nouns had a familiar ring. So did his habit of using verbless sentences.
‘New hospitals, better schools, safer streets,’ he schmoozed. Oh God. Another heir-to-Blair is ready for take-off.