Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The Chancellor brings a mysterious poetry to his numbers

25 Nov

“Numbers alone can ring hollow,” Rishi Sunak said at the end of his statement. But in his mouth, numbers did not ring hollow.

He brought a mysterious poetry to these figures. We are borrowing and spending far more than we can afford, or expected only a few months ago, and have also suffered “the largest fall in output for over 300 years”.

The Chancellor avowed that the debt we are accumulating is “clearly unsustainable over the medium term”.

And yet his transcendent lucidity and preternatural calm made the whole situation seem sustainable, the recovery just a matter of remaining as clear-headed and unflustered as Sunak.

Many Chancellors sound bored by the figures they read out to the House, or at least make those figures sound boring to the less numerate Members of Parliament.

Sunak somehow conveyed his love of spreadsheets in a way that Philip Hammond, his predecessor but one, never managed to do. There was a music of the spheres in all those noughts.

Lord Chesterfield said that Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721-42, when addressing MPs was

“So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”

Sunak has the same gift. And just as Walpole was trusted to clear up after the South Sea Bubble of 1720, so Sunak is trusted, at least for now, to clear up after the pandemic.

His lustrous black hair contains more streaks of grey than it did when he started in February, but otherwise he seems unaffected by the burden he bears.

In a level tone he announced “a new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion” from which any local area will be allowed to bid for projects which will have a noticeable impact and be “delivered within this Parliament”.

Sunak does not wish those Labour voters who turned Conservative last December to feel in 2024 that the Chancellor has let them down.

Nor does he wish anyone to suppose he is an unfeeling technocrat, who thinks only the figures matter. He ended by saying that the spending he had announced was “secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindness and creativity it unleashes”.

We are united in a moral mission, “a common endeavour”. Anneliese Dodds, replying for the Labour Party, was left with nothing much to say, and could not be blamed for that. She is a great improvement on her predecessor, but could not spoil Sunak’s day.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the Chancellor’s vision

8 Jul

Rishi Sunak belongs in a Spy cartoon. He should be drawn in profile, thin, alert, dark-haired, immaculate in a sombre suit and white shirt, leaning forward slightly at the Dispatch Box, like a batsman about to play an elegant cover drive.

Behind the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the end of the Treasury Bench, sat his captain, Boris Johnson, round, rumpled, genial, his own knockabout innings at PMQs just over, now content to watch his star player make some runs.

The Speaker, or umpire, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, decreed a three-minute pause between the end of PMQs and the start of Sunak’s statement, so the House could rearrange itself while obeying the laws of social distancing.

The Prime Minister held good-natured exchanges with passing backbenchers, a smile put on the face of each of his fielders, a smile on his face too. One felt one was watching a team who enjoy doing things together: an impression the media would consider it unprofessional to convey, for there the talk is always of splits, and Sunak is seldom mentioned without the suggestion that he will soon take Johnson’s job.

The Chancellor began by announcing that the Government is “unencumbered by dogma”, and motivated by “the simple desire to do what is right”.

The Prime Minister looked on with approval. He has a dog, but will never allow himself to become encumbered by dogma.

Sunak said that to extend the furlough scheme indefinitely would be “irresponsible”, for it would “give people false hope”. He instead announced “the kickstart scheme”, which will provide traineeships for “kickstarters”, defined as 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment.

One can kick start a motorcycle, but whether the same applies to 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment is not yet clear.

The Chancellor observed that the longer one is out of work, the harder it is to return to work, so he hopes to see “hundreds of thousands of new kickstarters”.

After this, his statement sagged a bit. Versions of the Green Homes Grant have been announced every year for decades.

As if recognising this, Sunak promised that his final measure has never been tried before. Members of the public who go out to eat at a restaurant, cafe or pub in August will be entitled to a discount of 50 per cent off, up to a maximum of £10 per head, including children.

The Prime Minister flushed with pleasure, patted his hand on the back of the Treasury Bench, jigged his knee up and down and nodded enthusiastically.

The Chancellor had put a smile on his captain’s face. Here was a Merry England gimmick, cheering everyone up.

Not that Sunak wanted to get carried away. “I believe in the nobility of work,” he added. There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the modern Conservative Party.

The Shadow Chancellor, Annaliese Dodds, is a vast improvement on her tricksy, self-satisfied predecessor, John McDonnell. During her reply, she communicated complete honesty of intention as she reproached the Government for failing to overcome fear of the pandemic, which is what most damages the economy.

According to Dodds, Johnson has claimed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt because he wants to avoid being compared to FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, whose desk bore the famous sign, “The buck stops here”.

She claimed Johnson’s motto is “The buck stops anywhere but here”.

Here is Labour’s attack on the Prime Minister: that he wriggles out of responsibility for the grievous mistakes made in the official response to the pandemic.

Incidentally, Truman’s desk carried another, less well-known sign, quoting some words of Mark Twain: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”