Rishi Sunak’s breakfast media rounds over the past 18 months have been usually pretty assured and polished affairs, as he stressed he was doing “whatever it takes” to protect the public from the economic damage of the Covid pandemic.
But on the morning after the Budget before, he looked and sounded much less sure-footed. It wasn’t just his verbal slip-up in saying he was in Burnley, when he was in fact in Bury. It was more that he sounded the most uncomfortable in interviews since he became Chancellor, largely because he was on the defensive about tax, climate change and Brexit.
Sunak’s attempt to describe his changes to Universal Credit as a “tax cut” merely served to highlight how few real tax cuts are entailed in his plans for the next three years. He struggled to explain why an instinctive tax cutter had opted for tax hikes to pay for the NHS, let alone why he is effectively reversing George Osborne’s plan to take the low paid out of tax altogether.
The real reason seems to be that he prefers tax hikes to further borrowing and, given that the PM has forced a big spending splurge on him, there was no other option. On climate change too, he had no real answer to the charge that he was sending exactly the wrong signal ahead of Cop26 by freezing fuel duty (our biggest green transport tax) and cutting short-haul flight taxes.
Yet it was on Brexit that Sunak’s arguments were thinnest of all. Not only did he fail to endorse the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s calculation that our skinny EU trade deal had worsened supply chains problems and would hit growth twice as hard as the pandemic (“that’s their view”, he said). But he also had a less than impressive list of Brexit benefits.
The new trade deals he trumpeted are either cut-and-paste copies of EU deals or (like Australia and New Zealand) have tiny impacts on GDP. Freeports are largely ways of shifting investment from one area to another. And his new post-EU changes to alcohol duties really are small beer for the economy.
He still has time to bounce back politically. But despite hailing tax cuts on sparkling wine, he was on less than sparkling form today. He looked like not so much “dishy Rishi” as “squished Rishi” squeezed politically by his heavyweight neighbour in No.10.
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