AAt least the speech was short and sweet, coming in at just over 25 minutes. Rishi Sunak, well, he wasn’t that nice. The Chancellor likes to present himself as a man of the people. Someone who gets through the daily struggles. A man who feels our pain. A tough call for a millionaire married to a billionaire. Then I guess he would say that poverty is relative. And compared to his wife, he’s broke. Sunak also prides himself on being someone who is country level. A man who can be trusted to be straight, even when he breaks bad news.
None of his versions survives the slightest contact with reality. Rather, he is the worst of both worlds. A chancellor with a veneer of empathy. Who can make a spring declaration — AKA a seismic budget any other year — that offers nothing to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society while sobbing on their behalf. Who can tell the chamber without laughing that he has pledged to cut taxes even as the Office of Budget Responsibility says the tax burden is expected to reach 36.3% by 2026: the highest level since the 1940s.
Sunak started with the war in Ukraine. Something Boris Johnson found inexplicably funny. As the Chancellor spoke of men, women and children huddled in bombed-out basements, the Prime Minister laughed. Let’s be nice. He was probably not paying attention and was in his own private world. He has trouble concentrating at the best of times, and especially when he’s not the center of attention.
The further he went, the clearer it became that Ukraine was going to be largely responsible for the biggest drop in living standards since records began. It didn’t matter that prices were rising, inflation was at 6% and rising and interest payments on the public debt were at record highs before Russia declared war – Sunak was not going to let a good war happen. to lose. In its rewritten history, everything was pretty close to normal after the Covid pandemic before Ukraine arrived.
But we needn’t have worried. The government was going to support the British people. Or rather stand close to some of them. I don’t want to get too close to little people. So here’s what was going to happen. First, Sunak was going to cut fuel tax by 5p a litre. Just for a year, watch out. Although good luck to anyone expecting him to restore duty in the year before an election.
And if so many people will notice the reduction in fuel tax, no one can guess, as the price of petrol has risen by at least 5p in recent weeks. So if you haven’t had your fill for a fortnight, you probably won’t appreciate the chancellor’s largesse. Even if it cost the public purse billions.
Now it was starting to get really confusing. After pledging an extra £500m to help poorer households – ‘Is that it?’ said a single Labor voice – Sunak assured home that he could only be so generous because he had managed the economy so wonderfully so far. Which makes you wonder how bad things would have gotten if the Chancellor had been a bit shitty.
“The work starts now,” insisted Sunak. Although many of us could have sworn the Tories had been in power for 12 years. The job Sunak seemed to have in mind was to undo most of what he had done six months ago.
Then he insisted that the 1.5% increase in National Insurance contributions was vital to keep the NHS operational. Now he wanted everyone to forget that tax increases ever existed. They were last year. Instead, we should focus on the £3,000 increase in the threshold at which NI became liable. Suddenly, the tax hike had become a tax cut. It was completely crazy. Not so much the Iron Chancellor as the Wibbly-Wobbly Chancellor. An amnesiac who has no idea what he’s doing overnight.
Sunak ended by saying he was not the kind of chancellor to seek short-term gains and indulge in political opportunism – but immediately said he would cut the basic rate of tax on the income of 1 pence in time for the next general election. Strangely, he didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
This announcement did not have quite the collective orgasm of the Conservative benches that he had hoped for. Perhaps because even the gloomiest Tory MP understood that the declaration was making a lot of noise and that people would be frozen and totally broke long before they could get excited about the 1p income tax cut. The performing seals, however, dutifully waved copies of Rishi’s “shrewd plan”. A blank eight-page document filled mostly with photos of people filling up their cars with gas. To remind everyone when you could afford it.
It’s never the easiest job to keep track of a budget statement that you have no view of in advance and Rachel Reeves’ answer is pretty flat. The shadow chancellor had spent much of Sunak’s speech hastily redacting and rewriting parts of her prepared speech. Although God knows why, because there had been no surprises. Almost everything had been leaked well in advance.
Reeves should have cut the gags. An extended Alice in Sunakland metaphor and description of Rishi as “Ted Heath with an Instagram account” fell totally flat. She had a great story to tell about missed opportunities to help people with the cost of living crisis and there was no need for comedy. Normally, she comes across as an engaging performer. Now she just seemed clumsy.
The Prime Minister’s Questions that preceded the Spring Statement had been a dismal affair. Largely because the suspect and Keir Starmer realized no one was really paying attention. Their exchanges lacked any real spark and the highlight was Starmer calling Johnson’s efforts half-assed. Quarter ass, rather like that.
We were treated to the rare sight of Natalie Elphicke, one of the darkest of all MPs. A very low bar. She seemed totally bewildered by what was going on with P&O. Someone should let her know kindly that if she hadn’t twice failed to vote for changes to the fire laws and rehiring, she wouldn’t have the undying scorn of maritime workers in her constituency of Dover.