Chancellor in a spin over coronavirus response

Rishi Sunak outlines latest plans to protect jobs as Covid-19 cases rise throughout the UK.

You have to feel for the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Since March he has come to the Commons time and again to announce with as much certainty as he can muster that his jobs protection measures are just what the country needs.

The only problem for Sunak is that the ink is barely dry on one statement and he is back before MPs making another one.

First we had increased spending just as the virus took hold. Then we had furlough. Then an extension of furlough. Then the promise of money for companies who retained furloughed workers. Then the Job Support Scheme and now today the Job Support Scheme, issue 2.

At the risk of turning your brain to mince with cross referencing the tweaks to the JSS issue 1, it is sufficient to say his announcement today made that scheme more generous for business, as well as doubling grant aid for the self-employed and providing more money for councils to distribute additional financial support.

He’s a confident fellow at the dispatch box is Sunak. He is noticeably free from the Prime Minister’s tendency to bluster and roar in a voice which usually indicates he is unsure of his ground.

So how would the Chancellor dress this latest U-turn? 

His argument was that changed circumstances should lead to a change in policy. Fair enough. He should, however, write a memo to himself emphasising that his public declarations should always articulate that changed circumstances will always lead to a change in policy.

The government’s management of the unprecedented help they have made available has been far too rigid. Constant assertions, particularly around the furlough scheme, have given the impression that policy is set in stone.

When circumstances force a change the government appears to be constantly reacting to events and with every new announcement comes the charge of being behind the curve.

The point was not lost on the shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds. She went for the ministerial jugular. As the Prime Minister sat, socially distanced, from his Chancellor, she pointed disapprovingly at both men.

Her contribution on behalf of the Labour opposition amounted to a long denunciation around the theme of ‘told you so’.

Sunak, she said, never gets ahead of the crisis. He peddles a patchwork of poor ideas. He runs to keep up. She dubbed the announcement as The Winter Economy Plan, series 3.

Her tone was both impatient and borderline angry and probably accurately captured the sheer frustration of many businesses who are teetering on the brink.

The Chancellor was having none of it and he abandoned his naturally ameliorative air in reply. He said Labour was engaged in “tribal, political point scoring” and attacked their plans for what he called a “damaging, blunt national lockdown”, arguing it would make job retention an even more difficult exercise.

Some have touted Sunak as a future Conservative leader. He is certainly smooth in the presentational stakes and is always keen to win the Mr Reasonable contest.

Politics, however, is far from reasonable and his inability to rebut more aggressively the verbal kicking from the shadow Chancellor marks him as potentially too soft a touch.

“We go now to Scotland,” said Mr Speaker.

At the end of a laptop, Alison Thewliss of the SNP was ready to take the Chancellor to task. The Glasgow Central MP was a good deal less aggressive than Dodds but she was every bit as straightforward in her criticism.

She dubbed the statement a “sign of panic and chaos” before urging on Sunak an extension of the furlough scheme as well as an extension of the top up to universal credit.

She also demanded that the Chancellor be clear on Barnett consequentials. That’s a piece of jargon which effectively asks how much more money goes to the Scottish Government as a result of the statement.

She didn’t get an answer to any of her points beyond a general declaration from the Chancellor that the government had supported all of the devolved administrations to the tune of billions of pounds and would continue to do so.

I suspect the reason she did not get a precise answer on the Barnett consequentials is that the mandarins at the Treasury are still bashing their calculators.

Their counterparts at Holyrood will be desperate for a definitive figure in order that the First Minister can be clearer with Scottish business what additional help might be available for them.

One interesting note about today’s statement. There was no reference about not being able to save every job. It’s a statement of the obvious that Sunak can’t but the announcements today omitted his usual health warnings.

Nor was there a reference to paying all of this back one day. The absence of any line on balancing the books in the long term tells this observer two things. One, big tax rises are on the way, but two they won’t be along anytime soon.