February 25, 2021

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.

  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.