It was a tale of two chancellors at today’s high-spending Budget. Rishi Sunak began by embracing the big-state profligacy pursued by Cameron and May, and maintained by their successors, Boris and Carrie.
The Chancellor reeled off stacks of figures indicating that the economy is roaring back to life. ‘Growth up! Wages up! Employment up!’ he shouted. And he announced that government spending sprees will also surge by £150 billion. He plans to restore the 0.7 per cent spending target for foreign aid by the end of this parliament. And he has ordered civil servants across Whitehall to find more stuff to buy.
‘A real-terms rise in spending for every single department,’ he boasted. The purpose of this fiscal madness is to flatter his vanity and to prove that ‘the Conservatives are the real party of public services’. He described our bloated state sector as ‘world-class’. But a moment later, he revealed that Britain’s school system is stuck in the Dark Ages. A large proportion of school-leavers — he didn’t say how many — have the numeracy skills of a 9-year-old child. Yet he wants to squirt more money at the teachers responsible for this atrocity. He announced a ‘new UK-wide numeracy programme, called Multiply, which will improve basic maths skills’. So the problem is too many useless educators. And his solution is to hire more useless educators.
The big-ticket announcements went on and on. He talked about food programmes, holiday activity schemes, educational recovery strategies, youth clubs, community football pitches, museum renovation schemes and an early years workforce. It sounded horribly earnest and maddeningly vague. What did he mean by ‘a network of family hubs around the country’? And how about this: ‘£1.7 billion to invest in the infrastructure of everyday life in over 100 areas’. Who will define ‘everyday life’ and how will the success of such projects be measured? He might as well open suitcases full of banknotes and let them blow around our town centres.
But halfway through the speech came a crunch of gears and a handbrake turn. He started to outline his personal philosophy. The state cannot solve every problem, he declared. ‘Government should have limits… and if that seems controversial, it needed saying.’ He let his train of thought stray into the realm of social policy.
‘We talk about family, community and personal responsibility not because they are alternatives to markets or the state, but because they are more important than markets or the state.’ Individual action is critical, he added. ‘Our choices, our sacrifices, our efforts.’ What a remarkably heartfelt statement from the nation’s chief bean-counter. And it was noticeable that his pearls of wisdom might have come from the teenage diaries of Margaret Thatcher.
His outlook can be reduced to two key phrases. Less government and smaller taxes. But it seems that the real Sunak, the hard-nosed Thatcherite, is being constrained by the precepts of his boss. He twice mentioned that he was enacting the PM’s pet projects. It’s not clear how long their partnership will last. Sunak moved to the issue of national cohesion, (which is hardly a Treasury matter). Speaking of the regions of Britain, he said, ‘we are bound together by more than transactional benefits.’
‘We are, and always will be, one family and one United Kingdom.’ This is the same rhetorical device used by Barack Obama when he became president-elect in 2008.
Sunak also lost no opportunity to sock it to Brussels. He set out reforms to alcohol duties and said, ‘they are only possible because we’ve left the EU’. His liberalisation of shipping rules will make Britain’s nautical emblem, the Red Ensign, attractive to vessels from overseas. This too, he said, could not have happened while we remained shackled to the EU. The long-term plan is obvious. He gave his audience a heady blend of Thatcher and Obama, and he threw in a powerful dose of Farage as well. This tank is on manoeuvres.
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