Let’s rewind to last June. The first lockdown – the one the glossies decreed was all birdsong and banana bread – is coming to an end, and Piers Morgan is very taken with one particular member of the cabinet. He tweets a photo of Rishi Sunak with the message: “I wish this guy was Prime Minister … He’s in a totally different league to Boris Johnson or any other Govt minister.” To which one might respond that, in any parade of suitable occupants of No 10, Huckster Johnson would trail far behind even Joss Stone dressed as a 7ft sausage.
No matter. Ever the cool statesman, Morgan has summed up the national mood. The chancellor is the one unalloyed star of this shower. Even the BBC paints him as Superman before deciding that is a mite too much. This is the bejewelled backdrop against which Sunak will present his budget on 3 March.
It makes for a curious milestone: only his second budget after just over a year at No 11, but already his 15th major spending announcement. It’s also a dangerous moment for the man who bought his way into voters’ hearts. However much journalists coo over his Star Wars fandom or his Insta feed, Sunak’s renown derives from something more basic: he has spent billions in public money to cover the public’s wages. Yes, pay 10 million people to stay at home, and you too can make friends and influence focus groups.
The furlough scheme ranks as the greatest of Sunak’s successes. Big, bold and bang on target, it recognised that the government could only tackle a lethal virus by plunging the economy into deep freeze while supporting employees. This was no normal recession but a once in a century global pandemic – and it demanded something entirely new.
This is the key battle line in Covid politics: between those determined to carry on as normal and those who understand this moment calls for a new normal. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are kneejerk normalists; Joe Biden and his counterparts in New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany are new normalists. The result? Plague Island UK can now boast one of the highest death rates in the world, as well as one of the most ruined economies.
Yet apart from the furlough policy, Sunak is even more of a normalist than his boss. He is the cabinet’s most powerful agitator against lockdowns. His “eat out to help out” scheme is the arch-normalist policy: a costly attempt to make believe that all is dandy – just weeks before another lockdown. And he has hemmed and hawed, ummed and ahhed over continuing his furlough scheme. When it was due to stop in October, he extended it with only five hours to spare – so late that he triggered a record number of redundancies. Jobs destroyed and companies capsized, all in the name of getting back to work.
Brace yourself for something similar from this budget. Following on from Johnson’s “roadmap” for easing lockdown, Sunak will probably wind down furlough and vow to cut the deficit, while holding off on anything that might dent his approval ratings. After all, this is the would-be Tory leader who last November froze civil servants’ salaries while lobbing more money at defence than the party faithful could ever have dreamed of. If his ambition were any more naked it would be on the top shelf at the newsagent’s.
Perhaps he’ll propose a rise in corporation tax, or some windfall levy on “excess profits”, the kind of Labour-ish measures that will make Keir Starmer squirm. You get the idea: back to business as usual and politics as normal. There is huge appetite for the humdrum: just look at the front pages drooling over the prospect of necking Lambrusco in a beer garden. But any normality will be a halfhearted pantomime in a country about to be racked by its own social and economic long Covid.
Many of the thousands who have gone through intensive care since last March will return home broken, requiring community treatment and perhaps depriving their families of a breadwinner. The bill for Covid in protective equipment, test and trace, and extra NHS costs is calculated by the National Audit Office as already outstripping our annual defence budget. Chuck in vaccines, and you don’t get much change from £60bn. Our need for these things may drop over the next couple of years, but it will remain large, and so will the cheque.
Then there are the nearly 5 million “missing patients”, as Anita Charlesworth at the Health Foundation calls them: those who would, in a normal year, have been referred to a hospital. She forecasts a “tsunami of hips and knees” that need replacing, a surge in mental health cases – and rocketing waiting lists. Do you think Sunak and Johnson are prepared for any of this? Don’t be daft. On current plans, the government expects NHS England to revert to normal spending from March next year.
British children have missed at least half a year of face-to-face teaching, for which the state normally pays £30bn. Yet Sunak has so far committed a fraction of that – just over £1bn – for catch-up lessons. It will of course be the poorest kids, the ones whose parents can’t hire a governess or a regular private tutor, who suffer most – not just now, but over their adult lives. Then there’s the backlog at our law courts, the councils teetering on the verge of collapse …
These are just some of the public services already run down by previous Tory governments, which Johnson & Co would rather you didn’t remember they were part of. Now is the time to rebuild them and to make our benefits system – currently world-beating in its meanness – more generous. The deputy head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson, observes that last year’s temporary £20 boost to universal credit is bigger than the rise in all out-of-work benefits for childless families over his entire lifetime. He is 45. That is the true scandal: social security that provides no security whatsoever.
I freely admit this is miles from where the Westminster debate is, because we have yet another Labour opposition ill at ease in its own skin and an entire political class telling itself some bedtime fable about The Angry Red Wall Voter and the Great Levelling Up. Not since the aftermath of the banking crash have I seen a political discourse so divorced from economic reality. Out of that vast gulf came the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Brexit vote and Johnson’s premiership. This time … well, the big difference this time is that the IMF, the OECD and a new regime in Washington are all gung-ho about spending more.
Meanwhile, over here we’ll emerge from the acute phase of this pandemic to a wave of business wreckages and job losses, and to the slow, sinking realisation of the harm Brexit is doing to firms. At some point sooner than Sunak likes, the Great Sage of Good Morning Britain may well change the tone of his tweets.