It isn’t easy being Chancellor of the Exchequer at the best of times. In the midst of a recession, caused by a global pandemic, it is a forbiddingly difficult job. One SpAd to a former Chancellor described his old boss’ role as ‘walking a tightrope whilst juggling with fire or spinning plates’ – of course lots of politicians aspire to the role, but all that acrobatics can overwhelm even the canniest operator.
Rishi Sunak’s challenge today was to balance an unenviable set of competing interests while keeping the plates of the UK economy spinning and avoiding the sort of slip up that can ruin a politician’s reputation and standing overnight. On the first two, he looks to have performed extremely well – and with a polish that belies his relative inexperience. On the third, it is of course too soon to say – but this ‘Summer Statement’ succeeded in matching the flourish of the PM’s speech last week with some real and meaty policy content. He has every reason to believe it a job well done.
Those competing interests matter – both politically and in terms of actual policy delivery. There are Tory MPs (not as many as one might think, but there nonetheless) who remain deeply concerned about this Conservative Government’s willingness to spend and its appetite for intervention. For this breed of Thatcherite, the pandemic and the recession that it has sparked are best treated by a ‘war on red tape’ and by capitalising on Brexit in order to further deregulate. Out of the ashes, a phoenix will rise – if only Government gets out the way.
There were bits and bobs for this group today – they will be relieved that the Chancellor is winding down the furlough scheme in October, for example and will appreciate the temporary Stamp Duty relief. But this was not a statement that they will – in their hearts – feel enthused about. The Government is doubling down on Boris’ description of himself as a ‘Brexity Heseltine’. Seen in the context of upcoming proposed legislation to prevent overseas takeovers of strategic companies and technologies, measures from today’s statement – £5 billion brought forward for infrastructure investment, £3 billion to green 650,000 homes – we can understand what the Prime Minister means when he describes himself in that way. The plan is to use Brexit to consolidate British industry, to protect British commercial interests, to deploy state aid and to invest in infrastructure to green the UK.
COVID-19 has accelerated and increased the welfarist streak in that policy mix but the framework was there all along. The irony, of course, is that such a programme is the explicit reverse of what many Tory Brexiteers wanted Brexit to achieve. They imagined a libertarian utopia, what they are getting is Harold MacMillan. But though this is not the Brexit Britain envisaged by Dan Hannan or Steve Baker, it is a policy programme that is attractive to voters. Focus group research carried out on the Government’s behalf point to a potent mix of social conservatism and economic activism going down very well with voters in the former ‘Red Wall’. It is these voters that this recovery plan is aimed at and all the signs point to it being popular and palatable to them – if not to a segment of the Tory backbench and membership.
It remains to be seen whether bitterness and disappointment from arch free marketeers will spill over into outright criticism or rebellion on any particular measure. It is interesting to observe, though, that even when speaking to the most ardently Thatcherite MPs it is not Sunak that attracts their private expressions of exasperation and concern: they save that for the Prime Minister himself and, with real passion, for his chief advisor Dominic Cummings. So far, Rishi has managed to spin his political plates with extraordinary elan – getting credit from the public for interventions such as the furlough scheme whilst avoiding blame from his colleagues for his massive spending and economic interventionism.
If he ever tires of being Chancellor, Sunak might find fresh opportunities in the circus. Today he walked the tightrope and spun his plates without so much as breaking a sweat – that’s not easy at the best of times, under the circumstances it is pretty remarkable. That he also managed to use this moment to lay out a personal manifesto – speaking of the ‘nobility of work’ and pledging to help the country to overcome the hardship and the sadness of the last few months – speaks both to his talent and, just possibly, to his ambitions for the future.