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Will Rishi Sunak survive this Budget? The Chancellor's ability to move fast and not break things may yet be his undoing

More of a swot than a jock, Rishi Sunak. Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty

More of a swot than a jock, Rishi Sunak. Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty


February 25, 2021   5 mins

There are more important things hanging on next week’s Budget than Rishi Sunak’s career. Nevertheless, it does hang in the balance. Because anything other than a stellar performance would beg a perilous question: has he peaked too soon?

True, he’s only had a year in the job. His big promotion came after just one year as a senior minister, which, in turn, followed just one year as a junior minister. But was it too soon for him to become Chancellor in the first place?

He got the job during the deepest economic crisis in living memory. And yet from his first Budget, barely a couple of weeks into the job, he shone — and kept on shining. Other ministers have stumbled. The Prime Minister almost died. Sunak stayed calm and carried on.

Ministers are sometimes described as “rising without trace”; they get promoted by simple virtue of not conspicuously cocking-up the jobs they briefly do. There’s more to Sunak than this though. The more you promote him, the more he rises to the occasion.

Sunak can’t, unlike some of his colleagues, be accused of dithering over big decisions. Radical measures of enormous scope, such as the furlough scheme, were implemented in a disturbingly brief period of time. Major adjustments, like the extension of furlough to the self-employed, were also made in short order.

Sometimes in a crisis, like the foot-and-mouth epidemic 20 years ago, the Opposition can dictate the agenda — effectively giving government its daily instructions. But not this time — and certainly not on economic policy. Labour has conspicuously struggled for relevance. Keir Starmer has earned the nickname “Captain Hindsight”, while his Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, isn’t called anything at all because no one knows who she is.

Given the unprecedented nature of the current crisis, ministers have no choice but to make it up as they go along. The trick, however, is to look as though you know what you’re doing — which Sunak usually does.

More than any senior politician in recent memory he’s shown himself to be a master of the short-term. I don’t mean that as an insult. When events are moving fast and timely decisions are all-important, the short-term matters to everyone. And, in more normal times, when the short-term ought not to matter as much — it is made to matter by our goldfish-brained culture of politics.

And yet Sunak’s ability to move fast and not break things may yet be his undoing. He wouldn’t be the first politician to trip over his fancy footwork. David Cameron was both admired and reviled for his “essay crisis” style of leadership. He’d get himself into a tight spot, only to wriggle out of it with seconds to go. But then one day — specifically, 23 June 2016 — the magic stopped working. Living in the moment can have the longest of long-term consequences.

Rishi Sunak is not an essay-crisis Chancellor. More of a swot than a jock, continuous effort is what he’s about. But that can still get you into trouble. Determined progress over a cliff edge is just as fatal as a last-minute lurch in that direction.

No single policy is more closely associated with Sunak than “Eat Out to Help Out” — and no single policy serves as a clearer warning of the dangers of not thinking ahead. It would be a grotesque distortion to blame this measure alone for the pandemic’s second wave, but it was emblematic of our summer of complacency. Instead of kicking the virus when it was down, we moved too soon to unlock the country and its borders — a mistake that was repeated again in the run up to Christmas.

The Chancellor was not the only Cabinet minister responsible for the unlocking policy, and the UK wasn’t the only country to let its guard down. Nevertheless, he’s always been in the forefront of efforts to get back to normality — including those that were clearly premature. The short-lived scaling back of the furlough scheme is one example; another is the pressure he’s come under to extend the Stamp Duty holiday.

As Chancellor, Sunak is discovering something new in his political career, which is that as well as making decisions that actually matter, he has to live with them. A rapidly promoted minister is forced into a short-term mode of action because there’s not enough time in any particular job to see through long-term reforms. There’s also precious little incentive. For politicians in the fast stream it is the quick wins that are rewarded. As long as you get the right headlines tomorrow morning, who cares about the history books?

“Up-or-out” is the name given to the sort of career track found in cut-throat commercial sectors like consulting (or academia for that matter). In a ruthlessly hierarchical industry, the biggest rewards are at the top the pyramid. To winnow out the lower layers, individuals are expected to achieve regular promotions or else quit — thus making room for easily exploitable fresh recruits. But once you’ve made partner or achieved tenure, you’re safe.

It’s an unhealthy dynamic. Being all about the concentration of wealth and status in as few hands as possible lends itself to the extraction of economic rents and the over-centralisation of authority. Furthermore, it creates a demand for quick thinkers not deep thinkers, and nurtures a culture of presenteeism in place of work-life balance.

Toxic stuff, which is why we should be worried that politics increasingly resembles an up-or-out industry. If we want our country to be run by workaholic yes-men who’ve never had an original thought in their lives, then we’re going the right way about it.

Of course, there’s one big difference between government and the other up-or-out industries — which is that, for ministers, there’s no security at the top either. That’s especially true of Chancellors. Once you get to that level there’s only one rung left on the ladder.

In the last 50 years, there have been 12 Chancellors of the Exchequer, plus the current incumbent. Of those 12, only two went on to become Prime Minister — John Major and Gordon Brown. Of the other 10, only Geoffrey Howe continued in Cabinet after being Chancellor.1

If this pattern holds, then, at just 40 years of age, Rishi Sunak’s ministerial career depends on surviving as Chancellor for many years to come or succeeding Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Either way, he will need to shift his thinking from the short-term to the long-term.

Boris Johnson isn’t normally thought of as a deep thinker, but he has a sense of history. He also saw far enough into future to read the runes on Brexit — and to defeat those who stood in its way. He evidently has a better feel for the course of events than his enemies do.

Therefore, when he looks ahead to the post-Covid world — as he did in a speech last October — we, and his ministers, should pay attention:

“In the depths of the Second World War, in 1942 when just about everything had gone wrong, the government sketched out a vision of the post war new Jerusalem that they wanted to build. And that is what we are doing now — in the teeth of this pandemic.

“We are resolving not to go back to 2019, but to do better: to reform our system of government, to renew our infrastructure; to spread opportunity more widely and fairly…”

As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak needs to start fleshing out that vision. Next week’s Budget is his first big opportunity to do so.

He can’t, of course, ignore the demands of financial sustainability. We can’t carry on living on our debts. Borrowing should be for investment, not subsistence. But merely setting out a timetable to unwind the emergency measures of the last year is not enough. To leave it at that would mean going back to 2019.

Most likely, the Budget will feature some future-facing announcements — for instance on the financing of Britain’s climate change commitments. We may even even see the makings of a carbon tax. However, this is Treasury policy in support of the policies of other departments — which while necessary, is not sufficient if the Chancellor is to prove himself a man of vision.

For that we need some idea of what Sunak believes about the fundamentals of our economic system. At the very least, we need some idea of what he thinks needs to change before we get an economy that works for everyone.

If the answer to that question is “not much”, then I can only hope that his own future trajectory is out and not up.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Ken Clarke had a brief outing as Lord Chancellor after a thirteen year break from government; and there may be a comeback for Sajid Javid.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Sunak is a creature of Goldman Sachs, probably the most ‘up or out’ organization in the world and noted for a rapacious focus on the short-term, invariably to the detriment of wider society. I suppose one could say that Eat Out To Help Out was a perfect example of this type of thinking. (Eat In To Stay Thin might have been more sensible).

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Chris Hopwood
Chris Hopwood
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Eat out to help out was bunce for the haves and rather than supporting the housing market the Stamp Duty holiday boosted it which was not needed.

Last edited 3 years ago by Chris Hopwood
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hopwood

The Stamp Duty holiday was equally insane. If you’re trying to suppress a virus why would you make it more likely that people will view properties and hire removals companies to transport stuff hither and thither?

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Deb Grant
Deb Grant
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

That’s because crowds don’t view propoerties and it’s easy peasy for agents and removals people to work Covid securely.

TIM HUTCHENCE
TIM HUTCHENCE
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hopwood

I presume you are already a home owner? For those who want to take first steps towards owning their first home or trade up as maybe their family expands, SDLT relief is very valuable. So much so, in fact, that it should stay permanently ‘on holiday’ on purchases below ÂŁ500k.

Last edited 3 years ago by TIM HUTCHENCE
Deb Grant
Deb Grant
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hopwood

There is no evidence that food establishments in August caused Covid outbreaks. None at all. Not sure about returning holidaymakers from Spain etc. but the real uptick started as soon as Universities and Schools went back. This allowed parents to return to workplaces. It’s pretty simple to see if you look at the dates and numbers. It was also easy to see older teens and uni students NOT social distancing.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

At least Sunak’s got some relevant experience of Finance in a pressurised environment – and it shows. I’d view that as a strength. On the other hand, Labour’s Anneliese Dodds has no financial, economic or business experience at all – and it shows. She studied PPE and then taught politics. Someone tell me what benefit that would be to a Chancellor, let alone in a crisis?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I have no doubt that Mr Sunak will survive the budget. It remains to be seen whether or not the same can be said of thousands of small businesses and their employees.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The biggest take away truth of this covid fiasco is that WE ARE NOT ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. The wage for life animals, public sector espicably, are much more equal than the independent earning animals. Sit at home and get paid vs the sit at home and watch everything you worked to make in your life waste away.

The poor cash in hand guys, I really feel bad for them! Being in the trades a very great many folk I know work for cash, do not declare their income to the tax man, but get no handouts, just make their own living of their own sweat. In USA the Social Security pension is all based on contribution over your life, so they are not even gaming that. They work and they make their living and I admire them for it, free thinkers and independment people, and not a bought in member of the greaqt economic game of selling yourself to the boss man.

They work hard! They lost work, they get nothing!!!!!! The government paid the welfare recipients, the legally employed, but not the huge amount of free guys who do a great deal of the actual parts of making society function in building, cleaning, grass cutting, roofing, carpentry, home care, and on and on. In USA huge numbers of these people exist, a huge amount, as USA is 10 times more free and independent minded that Europe – and they got sc** wed.

This Ivroy Tower gravy train driver, he takes care of the ones who will not work, the ones who work for others, self employed to a small degree, but free people? NO.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, all true. The free thinking and productive are being persecuted by the UK and US governments. But I’m afraid that will always be the case.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

‘The poor cash in hand guys, I really feel bad for them! Being in the trades a very great many folk I know work for cash, do not declare their income to the tax man, but get no handouts, just make their own living of their own sweat.’

With the greatest of respect that is utter cobblers.

Those who do not declare their incomes, partly or as a whole, are essentially indirectly forcing others to make up that tax shortfall not ‘just making their own living off their own sweat’.

To imagine that they are somehow ‘off radar, fiercely independent, diehard libertarian pioneers’ whilst they go about making their livings in safe, stable societies that require taxation in order to maintain and sustain themselves but that they apparently have no personal responsibility for, as you seem to believe, is a reckless, frankly dumb, assertion.

Who delivers them into this world, who buries them when they leave it, who educates them and their kids, who polices their streets, how do they get to work, who cares for them if they’re sick, the list goes on.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph
3 years ago

Will Rishi Sunak survive this Budget?The Chancellor’s ability to move fast and not break things may yet be his undoing
ï»żSeeing that Peter Franklin wrote this piece, I would bet money on Rishi not only surviving this budget, but becoming a phenomenally successful Prime Minister.

Last edited 3 years ago by Michael Joseph
Gary Ransome
Gary Ransome
3 years ago

Wishy Washy Sunak will continue the furlough holiday season and it will soon morph into Universal credit

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
3 years ago

,

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Ian Staker
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘In the last 50 years, there have been 12 Chancellors of the Exchequer, plus the current incumbent.’
That’s not so many when you think that we’ve had 10 PMs in that time. Only three of them were any good, or had time to be any good. Namely, Howe, Lawson and Clark. And one could argue that even Lawson was responsible for a somewhat irresponsible boom.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
J StJohn
J StJohn
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

15 in 51 years! Typically a 3 year tenancy. Only Brown exceeded 6; and that’s because he had the PM by the shorts.

Last edited 3 years ago by J StJohn
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  J StJohn

Brown had us all by the shorts. I can still feel the pain. But it’s 13 in 51 years if you start with the deranged Barber in 1970. So, around four years per tenancy, especially as Sunak will almost certainly be there for a few more years.

John Chestwig
John Chestwig
3 years ago

This article has some interesting ideas, though has some fundamentally flawed elements in the middle. It is highly contentious as to whether anything which occurred over the summer was ‘responsible’ for “the pandemic’s second wave”, given that covid-19 is a seasonal, high-transmissible virus that was already endemic throughout the country as we went into summer. It is also arguable that the UK was too complacent in summer in terms of unlocking, rather that unlocking should have been far faster and more widespread, to encourage spread of the (originally) less transmissible variant to occur more rapidly amongst low-risk groups who were at their peak of summer health, and whilst the hospitals are typically empty of people suffering from other winter-related diseases.
What should be a main criticism of Sunak, is that he has overseen the biggest collapse in UK finances for 300 years and he should be held accountable on the basis of collective responsibility amongst the cabinet. Decades of paying off debt and relative underspending must inevitably follow, as a result of decisions taken during his stewardship of the Treasury.
He also has to take responsibility for staying in a cabinet which has overseen the biggest removal of personal liberties for centuries, with a disgraceful disregard for the role of parliament and fanatical desire to both terrify the public and treat them as infants.
He may not get much blame in future for the above, but some of our grandkids will still be feeling significant pain from the egregious economic and societal developments for which he is heavily responsible.

Last edited 3 years ago by John Chestwig
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  John Chestwig

Well said John. This writer using his tarot cards to discover the eat out caused the next wave should not count as fact, or even good theory.

I think Sunak is merely one of the biggest of the army of rats eating away at the hull of the ship of state. Tell us of Sunak’s cost/benefit studies of lock down. He comissioned none, he took it on faith like a person being told by a medium that the ‘other side’ wants him to spend money on shakey causes.

Fallow the science? What Science? It was pure emotional blackmail, MSM gas-lighting, and billionaires getting more billions as the economy, freedom, education, sanity, jobs, personal finance, future pensions, were killed off.

Yes, he should answer for this disaster, every one of them should.

Francis Arabin
Francis Arabin
3 years ago

Poorly researched article. James Callaghan was chancellor and prime minister.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Francis Arabin

But Callaghan was Chancellor before the time period referred to by the writer i.e. he was Chancellor circa 1968-70, following on from the somewhat alcoholic Brown (was is George Brown?).

david bewick
david bewick
3 years ago

Instead of kicking the virus when it was down, we moved too soon to unlock the country and its borders 
Really? There’s a very good argument that we should’ve been open a lot sooner and right through the summer months when people recharge their immune systems and acquire defences against viruses and other pathogens. It’s worth remembering that peak deaths was on 8th April, the peak infection was before the first lockdown and we weren’t opened until 4th July.
All the evidence suggests the govt and their advisers tried to kick it when it was down and failed…..miserably.

Greg C.
Greg C.
3 years ago

Rishi Sunak is merely following the herd of Finance Ministers around the globe : he embraced MMT. The primary objective is, by a combination of arcane language, funny money and fishy statistics, to maintain, in so far as one can, full employment, not balance the books. Balancing the books only mattered when we had Bond Vigilantes.

Sparta Cuss
Sparta Cuss
3 years ago

Time for a UBI; if you agree, please sign my petition: Support Avtar Singh’s petition – Petitions (parliament.uk)