For brazen cynicism, I have seen nothing like Sunak’s plan in 40 years | Will Hutton Otesanya David March 27, 2022

For brazen cynicism, I have seen nothing like Sunak’s plan in 40 years | Will Hutton

For brazen cynicism, I have seen nothing like Sunak’s plan in 40 years | Will Hutton


The Conservative party’s conceit is that it is the country, speaks for the country and is the custodian of the country’s true values. The combination of a first-past-the-post voting system, a divided and often not very electable opposition and a pliant media certainly means it’s more often than not in government, so apparently warranting the conceit.

But that does not mean that the conceit is justified. Britain is a much more innately progressive, generous and fair-minded country than our party of the right ever imagines. But for an ambitious Tory politician, the falseness of the equation does not matter. What counts is the goodwill of backbench MPs and constituency associations. Not only are they seen in the Tory tribal echo chamber as proxies for mainstream public opinion, they are the voters who will confer the party leadership and thus prime ministership. Have them on your side and the prime ministership is yours.

So the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, must have thought as he prepared a spring budget whose hallmarks were fiscal deceit, political cynicism and an astounding lack of imagination. He presented himself as if in a tight spot, but in truth he was in anything but. The rise in forecast inflation to 7.2% and falling back only slowly thereafter, interacting with his pre-announced policy of freezing income-tax allowances and a stronger economic recovery than expected, means that borrowing will be an astounding £72bn lower over the next four years than he thought only last October. The forecast budget deficit in four years will be the lowest for 25 years. How was that largesse to be allocated?

Serious choices were available, but Sunak took us for fools. He assumed that a 5p cut in fuel duty, lifting the threshold for national insurance contributions and the promise of a penny off the standard rate of income tax in 2024 would delude the public at large and his backbenchers in particular into thinking he was a tax-cutting chancellor. This, even as the wider tax take is rising to postwar highs. Having suckered them into thinking he was doing as much as possible within his artificially created constraints, with Tory MPs waving their order papers joyously, he could leave unaddressed, and with little protest, the coming biggest drop in household incomes for 66 years. It was deceit posing as virtue.

This parade of his devotion to Thatcherite virtues of thrift, lowering debt and commitment to “fiscal responsibility” would, he hoped, further cement his reputation with his key constituency. Of course, those principles must mean he should hoard the £30bn of financial headroom with which he could have done more in this year alone. But every positive option was stubbornly refused.

A down payment to get levelling up going seriously, to capture the prize of an economy £2.5tn bigger in a generation’s time? No chance – it wasn’t even mentioned. Lifting departments’ cash spending totals to compensate for higher inflation, so avoiding a repeat of George Osborne’s austerity? Forget it – and Sunak will be the arbiter of government policy until the election, as department after department will come pleading to him to restore the spending power they thought they had last October. Amazingly, even defence spending is to face a real-term cut in 2022-23. An uplift in universal credit or a promise to index benefits to compensate for higher inflation as families face real poverty? No way – these are the undeserving poor who hardly vote and if they do vote they don’t vote Tory. They can twist in the wind.

All that mattered was to guard jealously that hoard, offer no support to the beleaguered prime minister in his flagship policy and no additional help to millions of households facing a further £800 jump in energy bills when the price cap is lifted in October. The money is earmarked for tax cuts in 2024, aiming to buy the Tories the election and Sunak the prime ministership. For brazen cynicism, I have witnessed nothing like it in more than 40 years of commenting on budgets.

Worse, tax cuts have been elevated to become the alpha and omega of policy – a standing they don’t deserve in theory or practice. Plenty of high-tax economies perform very well. What drives growth is ideas, access to open and growing markets, well-run companies, fit-for-purpose institutions, trained workers, smart, long-term finance, inspirational leaders and clever, innovative government not obsessed by capping debt. Most of this the government is simply not capable of doing systematically or even of grasping intellectually.

Putting some muscle behind levelling up or driving to net zero could be catalytic, but neither is owned by Sunak or the party at large. Indeed, in key areas, we are going backwards. The Office for Budget Responsibility delivered a scathing verdict on how Brexit has induced a collapse in our exports to and imports from the EU. It calculates that trade’s share in UK GDP has fallen 12% since 2019 – two-and-half times more than any other G7 country.

Brexit is the cause, not remotely compensated for by any of the much-vaunted trade deals outside the EU. Falling trade is a drag on growth – and weakens firms’ inducement to raise productivity. Bad and bad, although the reign of silence on Brexit – and that very much includes you, Labour party – means that the damage goes unnoticed and uncriticised.

We are governed by uncreative over-claimers obsessed by Thatcherite shibboleths – hating Europe, fetishising tax cuts and “fiscal responsibility” and wilfully careless of the condition of the people. Sunak’s disastrous spring budget was a seismic event, but he was only making choices faithful to the conceit that the Tories’ priorities and values are those of the country.

The near-universally hostile reaction was testimony to just how out of touch this narrow tribe has become. Britain is not aching for tax cuts or everlasting enmity with Europe. It wants a government that has its back and understands its instincts for fairness and wants to see a creative framework that will stimulate growth and living standards. The message from last week is unambiguous. These Conservatives have run out of ideas and road. Our stricken society and failing economy need so much more.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist


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