Some are born lucky, some achieve luckiness and others have luckiness thrust upon them. It’s not yet clear into which category Rishi Sunak might fall, but it’s looking entirely possible that the chancellor qualifies for all three. A hat-trick for which every chancellor in history would have sold their souls has landed gently in his lap.
When Sunak became chancellor last month, he was widely written off as Boris Johnson’s poodle. The man who would happily sack all his special advisers and follow his master’s every word just to get his hands on one of the four main offices of state. How things change. Now it’s Rishi who looks the master and Boris the needy lapdog. Where Boris frequently looks a bit shifty, uncertain of the facts and prone to contradiction at the daily Downing Street press conference, Sunak was totally assured as he outlined his aid package for the self-employed. A prime minister in waiting – and probably not for very long.
The coronavirus has been devastating for the country on almost every level. But for Sunak it has had one or two unexpected dividends. For every Conservative chancellor in history, the onus has been on prudence, balancing the books, low spending, low tax fiscal responsibility and – where possible – giving a little bit more to the most well-off members of society.
But now the gloves are off. Sunak already had been given a bit of leeway to loosen the purse strings to prove Brexit a success, but now he has free licence to spend, spend, spend in a bid both to save the economy and protect people’s jobs. There is now a bottomless pit of money from which he could give a commitment to spend as much as was needed to see the country through the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re in trouble, Rishi’s your man. It can’t be long before he does a Jimmy McGill and changes his name to Saul Goodman.
It goes without saying that if it had been a Labour chancellor who had been promising what could well be a £500bn bailout, then many Tory MPs would have been up in arms about the Marxist economics of mass state aid. Crisis or no crisis. But now the Tories believe in an Interventionist God. Or at least an Interventionist Chancellor, so because Sunak is one of them he gets a free pass.
Better still, there are no downsides. He is a man of consequence who is blissfully free of consequences. Should the economy go into recession, then he can legitimately plead humanitarian priorities. And if Brexit should later go tits up, he can blame the coronavirus. It’s win-win. Where most chancellors are forced into the role of Scrooge, telling people why it’s good for their souls to be broke, Sunak is able to be the man on the street corner handing out free money. Providing you don’t look too hard at the small print.
Having already provided a bailout package for workers on PAYE, Rishi was now turning his attention to the self-employed. We must forget ideology, he said as a warning shot to those Tory MPs who have an inbuilt aversion to anyone without the resources to look after themselves, and do the right thing. And the right thing to do was to offer all those with three years of accounts and earnings up to £50k per year a monthly payout of up to £2,500. With the option to extend if the coronavirus lockdown lasted longer than expected.
There were a few hiccups in the system of course. As there were in the video-link with the media. “We turn next to Robert Peston of ITV,” said Rishi.
“Oh shit,” said Peston.
“Um ... My connection isn’t very stable, but I will give it a go.”
The questions mainly centred on those who fell through the self-employed net. Those who might only just have turned self-employed or didn’t have more than a year or two of self-assessment accounts and didn’t have the cash flow to wait for the £7,500 payout in June would be able to get emergency handouts from universal credit (UC).
Here Sunak’s age counted against him. He may be only 18 but he looks younger and clearly hasn’t yet discovered that universal credit hasn’t been a universal success. At the last count more than 500,000 people on PAYE had tried to access UC in the last 10 days. A further 3.5 million people logging in could break the system entirely. “You are currently number 3,289,688 in the queue. Your current estimated waiting time is seven years, nine months and 21 days. Please do hold as your call is important to us though we will do our best to time you out before you have spoken to the grandchild of the person who was originally answering the phone when you first rang.”
The thing was, Rishi did this all with complete panache. He is a man untroubled by lack of self-confidence. He even managed to get away with threatening the self-employed with a massive hike in tax and national insurance contributions as a quid pro quo for his largesse, without offering them paid holiday or statutory sick pay in return. Because he was the King of Cool, the last of the big spenders who would see most people near enough alright.
As he left the podium, he eyed up the Downing Street state rooms. One day soon, all this would be his.