Analysis: Clunky media appearances highlight an awkwardness with ordinary voters that was invisible during the pandemic
One of Gordon Brown’s few and oft-repeated jokes was that there are two kinds of chancellor: those who fail, and those who get out in time.
Despite having served little more than two years in the job, Rishi Sunak may have missed the moment to quit – or move next door – while he was ahead, according to Thursday’s front pages at least.
Even George Osborne’s pasty tax/granny tax/caravan tax “omnishambles” budget of 2012 did not fall apart so fast – though Sunak’s supporters may take comfort in the fact the Tories went on to win the next election.
The economic backdrop he faces is grim and unenviable. But the deliberate political decision not to provide additional help for the hardest hit, while pre-announcing a tax cut clearly timed to suit the electoral cycle, looked uncaring and cynical.
Even the pro-government Daily Express front page said: “The forgotten millions say: what about us?”
Sunak’s fumbled defence of his policies in a string of awkward and sometimes tetchy media interviews – including a showdown on LBC with a single mum who cannot afford to keep the heating on – did not help.
Back in the dark days at the start of the coronavirus
pandemic, the chancellor’s smooth delivery offered a reassuring contrast to Boris Johnson
’s dishevelled style and mixed messages.
Just shy of 42, he came of age in the Blair years, and can speak to a younger generation than the prime minister, whose classical allusions and dated cultural references set him apart.
It was Sunak who told the public he would do “whatever it takes” to protect their livelihoods through lockdown – and the policy for which he is best known, the £69bn furlough scheme, met the urgency of the moment.
Yet he has spent much of the time since then trying to redraw his political image from saviour of the working man to dry-as-dust Thatcherite tax-cutter: Philip Hammond in a hoodie.
He wanted to turn off the furlough scheme in autumn 2020, before Covid
cases surged again and made clear that would be a dangerous mistake.
He pushed through cuts to overseas aid, and insisted on removing the £1,000 a year boost to universal credit that had helped the poorest households through the crisis (though he then partly reversed that move, by cutting the taper rate).
He announced a slew of tax increases in an attempt to get the public finances back in shape – including freezing personal tax thresholds and hiking corporation tax – yet ended October’s budget with a stirring promise of future tax cuts.
Wednesday’s spring statement included that crowd-pleasing cut in fuel duty, but nothing for those reliant on state benefits, aside from £500m extra for a local council hardship fund – an omission one senior Tory put down to Sunak being “allergic to welfare”.
All that suits the political predilections of the Tory rightwingers who would be his most obvious first-round backers in a future leadership contest. Yet at the same time, by appearing tin-eared, it has reopened nagging questions about his political savvy.
His string of clunky media appearances also pointed to an awkwardness with ordinary voters that was invisible during the pandemic at the Downing Street podium; and a failure to grasp how the other half live.
In just one example, he cited his favourite seeded Hovis bread as one of the staples whose price is going up, before adding: “We have all different breads in my house.”
He also has a swimming pool, a condo in the couple’s spiritual second home of California, and – in his wife’s case – a £700m stake in the tech giant Infosys. All of which might not matter so much, if the cost of living crisis was not front and centre of the public’s minds.
Wednesday’s statement may also have accelerated a process pollsters say has been happening for some time. Now he’s no longer paying wages from the public purse, and with the economic outlook darkening, voters may gradually be falling out of love with Sunak.
A snap poll carried out by YouGov on Wednesday had 69% of respondents saying he had not done enough to tackle the cost of living crisis.
Not so long ago, the polished Sunak seemed the obvious successor to the prime minister, who was blundering insouciantly from one crisis to another. But with a tough 12 months ahead, it appears increasingly likely the peak of the chancellor’s popularity – the moment when he could have “got out in time” – has already passed.