Rishi Sunak is a low spending, low tax, less regulation Conservative by instinct, and there is no great mystery about him. He is shacked up to a man of many mysteries, but who is clearly a high spending, high borrowing, big-building Conservative by habit: Boris Johnson.
The Chancellor’s misfortune is to have been promoted within the Treasury, after the dramatic resignation of Sajid Javid, during years defined not so much by Brexit as by pandemic, war and, if you like, the Prime Minister’s tendency to see economics as a form of entertaintment.
All three factors have meant higher spending than would otherwise be the case, especially the first – which has sent tax and borrowing spiralling, leaving dent at its highest since the early 1960s and the deficit at its highest since the Second World War.
Which has damaged Sunak’s standing within the centre-right press and also Conservative Party activists, if this site’s Cabinet League Table is any guide. Liz Truss displaced him at its top in November 2020. He is currently tenth.
The Chancellor opened his Spring Statement in the Commons earlier today with a sombre warning about the effects of war in the Ukraine on the cost of living – amidst the bleak post-pandemic and early post-Brexit landscape.
By necessity the whole statement had therefore to be a mini-Budget. But was it less a package shaped by troubled times than one crafted to rescue Sunak’s own reputation as a tax cutter – and repair his relationship with the Tory press and base?
Consider the centrepiece of the statement: “the largest single personal tax cut in a decade”, as the Chancellor called it – the raising of national insurance contribution thresholds by “the full £3000, delivering our promise to fully equalise the NICs and income tax thresholds”.
It’s the second step of a three step dance. The first was the original NIC rise, driven by Johnson’s determination to make a social care announcement and Sunak’s to ensure that the money to fund it wasn’t borrowed.
The second is this new raising of the thresholds. The third will be a penny off the standard rate of income tax in 2024. So we have a first move that takes money from workers, a third of no special benefit to them and a second aimed at healing some of the harm done by the first.
The thresholds manoevure is in itself very welcome – and one recommended by the Centre for Policy Studies, another useful interest for the Chancellor to placate – as is the much-anticipated cut in fuel duty.
So much for Net Zero when the going gets tough, you may say. But Sunak sought to cover himself by announcing a VAT cut for those having “materials like solar panels, heat pumps, or insulation installed” – a Brexit bonus.
But not one which will apply in Northern Ireland, so clock how quick the Chancellor was to cover himself, or try to. “This policy highlights the deficiencies in the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he said, before promising to raise the matter with the EU “as a matter of urgency”.
So, then: a national insurance cut, a fuel duty cut, a pledged income tax cut (before or after the next election?) and an Employment Allowance cut – not nearly enough, of course, to reverse the rise in the tax burden. But enough blue meat to sate the wolves, perhaps, for the moment.
“This is the direction Conservative supporters want us to go in,” Oliver Dowden tweeted in the wake of the statement, and if by that one means voters in Tory heartland seats like his own, or many Daily Telegraph and Spectator and for that matter ConservativeHome readers, he is right.
A question all this poses is whether what may work for the Party, at least among its better-off activists and voters, strikes the right balance for the country – and here the jury is out. The Chancellor spurned Brownesque or Osborneish triangulation tricks with windfall taxes.
Admittedly, one never knows what the autumn’s Budget may produce. Maybe more surprisingly, he spurned the opportunity to boost Universal Credit, state pensions and perhaps public sector pay, as he held back most of a £55 billion windfall from higher growth than expected.
And this at a time when the Office for Budget Responsibility expects “the biggest fall in living standards in any single financial year since ONS records began in 1955-57”. Which takes me back to Universal Credit.
The Chancellor pointed out that the Institute for Fiscal Studies calls an NIC cut “the best way to help low and middle earners through the tax system”, but take those final four words off the clause, and Universal Credit looks like a better way still.
Lots of those lower and middle earners are Tory voters, a point presumably not lost in the famous Red Wall. Sunak will have a riposte to this line of criticism, of course – namely, to look at his actions over time, not just today.
There was the reduction of Universal Credit tapers in his Budget last year, for example. Not to mention his February package for a council tax rebate and energy bills discounts. And today, he announced the doubling of the Household Support Fund to £1 billion.
The Chancellor will also argue that the Tax Plan he unveiled today was presaged in his Mais Lecture – and he is certainly right to want to consult widely about the best means of stimulating business investment, productivity and innovation.
But with the best will in the world is it hard to see why a future cut in 2024 should not prioritise workers, through a further cut in national insurance, rather than all taxpayers, through one in income tax.
And if the Chancellor can quote the OBR, saying that “there is unusually high uncertainty around the outlook” ahead, how can he know what circumstances will apply in two year’s time – and that the rabbit which he says is tucked away in his hat will then definitely be pulled out?
Perhaps ducks are better applied to today’s statement than rabbits. If it walks like a leadership bid, or at any rate like a Chancellor aiming to protect his future credentials, and talks like a leadership bid, then maybe the most simple explanation is the best.
But Sunak strikes me more as an Osborne, acting as a team player, than a Brown, plotting his boss’ downfall – though his relationship with Johnson isn’t remotely as easy as Osborne’s with Cameron.
Which leaves me wondering whether the Chancellor is too sensitive to criticism from his backbenchers and the Tory press for the country’s good – and perhaps ultimately for his own, too. The point can be debated either way.
On the one hand, a good politician must know when to bend with the wind if he’s not to be broken by it. On the other, he must sometimes make a stand – which Sunak certainly did, to his lasting credit, over Brexit when, as a young and ambitious politician, he came out for Leave.
But his statement as whole felt more like a reaction to criticism than a response to war and poverty, at least to me. A virtue of Boris Johnson is that he is seldom spooked by Fleet Street. Sunak is more of a stranger to its wiles.