Andrew Gimson’s Budget sketch: Everything is for the best in the best of all possible public sectors

27 Oct

These are dark days for Tory pessimists. Rishi Sunak today proclaimed with a triumphant smile “an economy fit for a new age of optimism”.

Everything is for the best in the best of all possible public sectors. There will be “a real terms rise in spending for every single department”.

Pangloss is in charge at the Treasury, and with an ebullient smile he scatters taxpayers’ money on the many good causes which have caught his eye.

There even will be “£1.7 billion to invest in the infrastructure of every day life”, with some of this devoted to constituencies which have so far continued, in their blinkered way, to return Labour MPs.

“We are so committed to levelling up,” this beaming Pangloss said, “we are even levelling up the Opposition front bench.”

Every corner of the land will benefit, for we are “one family, one United Kingdom”. The Budget delivers “an infrastructure revolution”, puts us on course to become “a science superpower”, will make our system of visas for gifted people from the Bay Area and Bangalore “the most competitive in the world”, will provide “a world-class education to all our people” and “world-class public services”, unleash “the dynamism and creativity of British businesses”, and bring about “the most radical simplification of alcohol duties for over 140 years”.

So on the drink side of things, the Chancellor is Gladstonian in his ambition, though the immediate effect is said by him to be a reduction of three pence on a pint of draught beer, which does not sound very much.

Perhaps we Tory pessimists will be able to continue, after all, to weep into our beer. We did not detect any sign of stringent public-sector savings, the candle-end economies which, in the Gladstonian scheme of things, enabled money to fructify in the pockets of the people.

Sunak himself seemed to feel the lack of a certain something in his Budget statement, for at almost the end of it, he came to his senses and declared: “Government has limits. Government should have limits.”

Good of him to remember that. “By the end of this Parliament I want taxes to be going down, not up,” he added.

And at this point he announced that the Universal Credit taper, under which recipients lose 63 per cent of every extra pound they earn, will be reduced to 55 per cent, which was what Iain Duncan Smith originally envisaged.

Here was a blow struck against an earlier Tory Chancellor, George Osborne. Everything that happened before the present Prime Minister entered Number Ten in the summer of 2019 is to be treated as nothing whatever to do with the present administration.

Boris Johnson was sitting just behind Sunak, wearing a mask, so it was impossible to gauge his reaction to the Budget, or to read his lips when he leant over to exchange a few remarks with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke.

But as Johnson had already referred with approval, at the start of PMQs, to “a new age of optimism”, one can take it he approves of the Chancellor’s general approach.

Sir Keir Starmer, who as Leader of the Opposition would usually respond to the Budget, could not do so, because he had just tested positive for Covid.

So the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, stepped in at short notice and in a short, powerful speech, superior to those delivered by her recent predecessors, accused the Conservatives of having become the party of high taxation and low growth.

We pessimists could not not disagree with her. To appreciate the full wonder of this Budget, it is necessary, as its author recognises, to be an optimist.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Good King Boris baffles his critics with benevolence

9 Jun

Good King Boris looked out, filled with benevolence towards all men and women, ready to welcome six of his fellow monarchs to a series of Cornish banquets.

The Labour benches attempted to portray him as a stingy son of privilege. Sir Keir Starmer accused him of spending only £50 per pupil per year to repair the harm done by the pandemic, compared to a munificent £1,600 per pupil in the United States and fully £2,500 a head in the Netherlands.

Johnson, unabashed, stuck to the line that Britain has “the biggest tutoring programme anywhere in the world”.

When Sir Keir pointed out that Britain is the only G7 country to be cutting aid, Good King Boris replied that on the contrary, the present Government has continued to spend more on aid than Labour ever did, “even when they were spending money on Brazilian dancers in Hackney”.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, wished the Scotland team well in the Euros. Good King Boris outbid him by wishing both Scotland and England well, and took a swipe at “the leftie propaganda…all they want to do is run the country down”.

Sir Keir laughed, Blackford frowned and Johnson declared in triumph that “one in three of the vaccines being distributed round the world to the poorest and the neediest come from the Oxford AstraZeneca supply”.

His account of how things are going was worthy of Dr Pangloss. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Like Voltaire, Johnson mocked his opponents by spicing his remarks with ludicrous touches. Things are going so well, and his opponents are so derisory, he has no need to be solemn.

Lord Frost, Britain’s EU negotiator, the PM declared, is “the greatest Frost since the Great Frost of 1709, or whenever it was”.

Ian Lavery (Lab, Wansbeck) remarked that Johnson has “a wonderfully privileged educational background”, yet is spending only 20 pence a day to help other pupils catch up, but had no more success with this line than Sir Keir.

Jonathan Edwards (Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) told a story of Brexit “betrayals” of Northern Ireland Unionists, fishermen and farmers, and wondered who comes next – steel workers?

“No,” Johnson replied, and accused Edwards of “completely missing the dynamism and optimism of so many people I meet in the agricultural sector who see opportunities for for Welsh lamb and Welsh beef around the world… Welsh beef and Welsh farmers can do brilliantly.”

Edwards should be backing Wales, for Johnson certainly is. And with that, the benevolent monarch left the Chamber, relishing the prospect of travelling in the footsteps of King Arthur to the West Country and feasting with the knights of the G7 at Carbis Bay.