At 9.35 on the morning of Friday 23rd September 2022 the House of Commons witnessed the unchaining of Kwasi Kwarteng.
Here was a man liberated to say what he really thinks. With what swagger, audacity and fervour the new Chancellor showed he is spoiling for a fight.
Kwarteng spoke as a true believer, seeing politics once more as a struggle between righteous and disastrous ideas, wielding an intellectual bludgeon with which he proposes to beat all those who stand in his way to a pulp.
The Opposition responded with nervous laughter. Such an opponent must not be taken seriously. He must be ridiculed, lampooned, exposed as a person with whose arguments no self-respecting guest at a North London dinner party would ever condescend to engage.
“Now none of this is going to happen overnight,” Kwarteng announced, setting off a wild outburst of hilarity on the Labour benches.
Ed Miliband turned pink and swivelled towards others on the Opposition front bench to check they found the joke as wonderful as he did.
“We are at the beginning of a new era,” Kwarteng added, to which the response was laughter mingled with derisive cries. Even Sir Keir Starmer’s customary look of upright disapproval was transformed from time to time into a grin.
“Now Mr Speaker this brings me to the cap on bankers’ bonuses,” Kwarteng declared in his most pugilistic manner. After observing that it would be preferable for bankers to “pay taxes here in London, not in Paris, not in Frankfurt and not in New York”, he said of the cap that “we are going to get rid of it”.
Miliband laughed harder than ever. Whoever heard of something so absurd as an uncapped bonus?
Kwarteng was not for one moment discomfited. He would have been distressed, indeed, if he had not upset the Dinner Party, as the late, great Frank Johnson described the fashionable folk of the metropolis.
The Chancellor had begun by reminding the House that the Government has instead capped energy prices. “Let no one doubt,” he thundered in his deep, gravelly voice, “this Government is on the side of the British people.”
The British people are a bit of unknown quantity. In 2016 they unexpectedly voted for Brexit. The Dinner Party would not dream of inviting them to its salons, and does not know them.
Liz Truss and Kwarteng think they do. In 2012 they brought out a tract called Britannia Unchained, which attracted adverse comment for saying the British are “among the worst idlers in the world”.
Truss, Kwarteng and their three co-authors (Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore) contended that “high tax rates and a poorly designed welfare system” were sapping the will to work.
The British people are inclined to agree. They respect hard graft, detest high taxes and take a low view of living off benefits if one is capable of work.
These people turned out to vote for Margaret Thatcher, a preference the Dinner Party could not understand.
And the British people will find Kwarteng’s plan to turn “the vicious cycle of stagnation into a virtuous cycle of growth” attractive, if it works.
Rachel Reeves declared, as Shadow Chancellor, that it will not work. She accused Kwarteng of presenting “a menu without prices”, and said “the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are like two desperate gamblers in a casino chasing a losing idea”.
She quoted Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak, neither of whom could be seen in the Chamber, against the new administration. Kwarteng scratched for a moment at his right eye, behind his black-framed spectacles.
And she cited Britannia Unchained, though not the final sentence of that work, possibly unreached by any Labour researcher, in which the authors say Britain must “put in the fundamental graft, risk and effort that bring long-term rewards”.
Reeves instead lightened the mood by declaring, “Labour believes in wealth creation”. General hilarity on the Conservative benches, and here was the one contention in her lucid and well-delivered speech to which Kwarteng condescended to reply, describing it as “the biggest fantasy I’ve ever heard”.
Not since Nigel Lawson in his pomp has there been a Tory Chancellor who communicates such ebullient intellectual confidence, and such scorn for his critics.
This sketch is illustrated, with a degree of licence, by the famous Budget red box, but what Kwarteng today attempted is actually more important than what happens in most Budgets.