In his recent interview with Charles Moore in the Spectator, Rishi Sunak said that “I deliberately strived as Chancellor not to talk about things that were outside of my brief”. This brief bit of a sentence, part of Sunak’s reply to a question about woke, explains why he is likely to lose this leadership election.
Neither of the two longest-serving recent chancellors, Gordon Brown and George Osborne, would have produced such a pared-back reply. Actually, on second thoughts, they might have done – but only because they had expanded their brief to include matters that were originally nothing to do with it at all.
Take Brown’s tax credits. In simple terms, they were a form of social security, usually but not always linked to work, for which the Treasury was responsible. (Or rather, HMRC was. The Treasury answers for it in Parliament)
Now turn to Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. There is no reason why this scheme to link up urban areas in the Midlands and the North should have been masterminded from the Treasury, rather than from the Business Department or Downing Street.
Slate Brown for turning a body that takes money in into one that also pays it out – and for making the Treasury the older brother of the Department for Work and Pensions (as he renamed it).
Or slag off Osborne for seeking to force elected mayors on areas that often had little enthusiasm for them, and creating the conditions for more urban Labour than Conservative ones.
All the same, both men were displaying a creative quality best called imagination – the power to conjure something out of nothing, and thereby “make the weather”, as Churchill said of Joe Chamberlain.
Another way of pondering the role of imagination in public life is to think about telling a story. “My tax credits are part of New Labour’s mission to help make work pay, and so deliver economic opportunity and social justice,” Brown might have said.
And Osborne could have said that “our Northern Powerhouse is part of the Conservative commitment to spreading prosperity throughout the country, by joining up our great midlands and northern cities to produce more wealth, jobs and opportunity”.
Nor is imagination confined to Chancellors. Tony Blair had it in spades, Margaret Thatcher even more so. Ronald Reagan had his “shining city on a hill”. De Gaulle had his “certain idee de la France”. You will see where all this is leading.
I like Rishi Sunak, and this leadership election has confirmed that he is slick, smart, sharp and fantastically across his brief. Nonetheless, he seems to be losing the contest, and has explained why himself.
For let me now give you the complete quote which contains the fragment with which I opened this article. Sunak said the following –
“I deliberately strived as Chancellor not to talk about things that were outside of my brief, because every time I did it, or even remotely did it, everyone would start saying: ‘Oh, gosh, well, what does that mean?”
“And does it mean you’re interested in being leader one day?’ Now it’s painted as a criticism – ‘We didn’t hear enough from you on your views on, say, crime or migration’.”
And quite right, too, you may say: we’ve had enough of chancellors whose reach exceeded their grasp. We need the traditional kind who sticks to his last in the Treasury, and keeps his fingers out of other Ministers’ pies.
Perhaps – but this model didn’t exactly worked well for Sunak, at least if relations with his colleagues are concerned. Look at the long line of them queueing up to endorse Liz Truss.
Sure, Ben Wallace in government, say, and Tom Tugendhat outside have an obvious motive: they don’t want to get on the wrong side of the likely winner.
But there’s more to the matter than that. Talk to their friends, and you will be told that they found the Chancellor inflexible when in dealings or negotiation.
Now I am firm, you are stubborn, and he is bloody-minded, as the old saying has it. Intransigence is in the eye of the beholder. And many of those who worked with the former Chancellor support him enthusiastically, and give a different account.
All the same, Sunak’s conventional approach didn’t work well for the Government, either. After all, if it had, he wouldn’t have resigned.
That isn’t to say that Boris Johnson was right about the economy and that his Chancellor was wrong. Far from it, in my view. But the differences between the two men might have been negotiable were they other than they are.
Johnson is intuitive, untidy and formed by the chaotic trade in which I work: journalism, with its hectic deadlines, literary feuds and last minuteism.
Sunak is methodical, neat and shaped by his experience as an analyst in the more consensual and corporate world of investment banking.
To be sure, he was telling Moore the truth, and revealing more than he perhaps intended, when he explained why he trod a narrow path as Chancellor.
For he had no career need to venture wider at the time. He was a fantastically popular Chancellor, topping our Cabinet League Table until December 2020, as furlough money poured out of the Treasury.
That cramped path might have led from Number 11 to Number 10, had Johnson’s Covid illness been even more severe. But then came Downing Street parties, the bills for Covid, a record tax burden, his wife’s non-dom status, a Green Card – and resignation.
By then, it was very late in the day for Sunak to start carving out a distinctive position on big subjects outside his brief: Net Zero, say; or levelling up or – to pick up where Moore’s question let off – woke.
All the same, he might have been able to do so (however firm, stubborn or bloody-minded he isn’t or isn’t) had he deployed just a bit more imagination, in the story-telling sense in which I’m using the word.
A friend of mine describes Sunak as “an investor, not an entrepreneur”, and as far as I know this is true of his Goldman Sachs and hedge fund work.
And just as being a journalist has shaped Johnson, so investing seems to have formed Sunak. His bent is to look at an issue, analyse it systematically, and propose a solution, sometimes technocratic and instrumental in character.
So it is than in his Mais Lecture he declared that “businesses simply aren’t investing enough”, added that this is “a pervasive economy wide issue” and concluded that “it seems likely to me that a priority will be to cut taxes on business investment”.
Perhaps he was right to say that “it is unclear that cutting the headline corporation tax rate did lead to a step change in business investment; we need our future tax policy to be targeted and strategic”.
But it may be that he is underestimating the effect that big signals, such as raising Corporation Tax, have on business confidence and certainty. This is where imagination comes in, or perhaps in this case may not. At any rate, he now finds himself in a position where, if he can’t tell a story about himself, others will do so for him.
Sunak’s counter-gambit is to double down on jam tomorrow and gruel today, and present himself as the candidate of truth. But it is late in the day. His campaign may look better in retrospect, but it seems to be coming off worse now. Truss may be less smooth but she’s shown more imagination – sometimes a bit too much so, as in the case of regional pay.