“That which we are we are,” the Chancellor declared as he reached the end of his Budget Statement.
Could heavens! Could this prosaic figure be about to raise our spirits by launching forth into the final lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses?
There can be little doubt those words were in the mind of whoever drafted Rishi Sunak’s peroration:
…that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Sunak has the benefit of a traditional English education, and will surely have spotted the reference.
But Tennyson’s ending was presumably felt to be at once too lyrical and too modest. For although the Chancellor admitted the economy has suffered its largest fall “in over 300 years”, he had no desire to suggest we have been “made weak by time and fate”.
He adopted instead the manner of a teacher addressing a mixed ability class whom he intends to “level up”, as he put it, even though most of us are not much good at maths, and economics is dismal science we do our best to avoid.
So Sunak had to be slow, and lucid, and conceded that if we would rather leave the economics to him, that would be fine.
“I do want to be honest about what I mean by sustainable public finances,” he assured us, and then, a moment or two later, “I have and always will be honest with the country about the challenges we face.”
Not long afterwards, he said of the changes to corporation tax, “I recognise that they might not be popular but they are honest,” and announced that he wants to be “honest about the challenges facing our public finances”.
Even the dimmer members of the class were starting by now to get the message that the Chancellor wishes us to accept that he is honest, but not all of us were sure we fully understood what he meant by “challenges”, a term other politicians often use when they mean “insurmountable difficulties”.
The Chancellor proceeded to give us a geography lesson. He said that a Treasury which acts for the whole United Kingdom “demands a different economic geography”. In this way, he explained in a level tone, we shall achieve “the levelling up” which we require.
There followed the grand recitation of the eight new freeports in England, stretching from Plymouth to Teesside, after which we hoped to get Tennyson, but were disappointed. Perhaps the speechwriter just had a bet with a friend that he could get a line of the poet into the speech without anyone noticing.
Boris Johnson will certainly have noticed, for his head is full of poetry. He sat listening in a supportive way, emitting audible “hear hears” from behind his mask, but jiggling his right knee up and down in a manner suggestive of unbearable mental tension.
Sir Keir Starmer rose to reply, and was rather good: in a different league to Jeremy Corbyn. Insofar as it is possible to hold an almost empty Chamber, he held it.
But if he is to be Prime Minister, he needs this Government to fail, and Sunak spoke with the self-confidence of a man who has not yet failed at anything.