Rishi Sunak’s performance last week was dazzling. But a week is a long time in the assessment of a Budget. Not all stay dazzled. Accolades one day after are risky. On the whole the public agreed with commentators' praise . One opinion poll gave the Conservative Party a 13 point lead, a budget boost on top of the vaccination bounce.
Rishi Sunak speaks well, reminiscent of Tony Blair in full flow: verb-less sentences to accentuate his achievements, repeated use of the well-known triple formula from classical rhetoric. Mr. Google says it’s called epizeuxis. Scrabble players please note. Our video star Chancellor’s carefully crafted speech illustrated, if any further illustration were needed, that he intends to be his Party’s choice as leader when Boris Johnson has ceased to be of use to the Conservative Party.
Those of sound mind and lesser aspirations do not delve into Budgets’ small print. The headlines sounded balanced, the tone honest, the measures necessary and, in one instance, incentivising investment, cleverly innovative. On a heavy news day, competing with bloodletting in the SNP, Sir Keir Starmer’s gainsaying got minimal coverage. But when we were allowed to hear from the Leader of the Opposition, he showed that the much admired balance of the Sunak speech was only achieved within a very narrow vision of society and economic recovery.
The great theme of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, now hallowed as immutable tradition, was choice. As we are so often told political leadership means making difficult choices. But you begin to ask ‘difficult for whom’ when the choices made by a particular Party, on close inspection, most often turn out to the detriment of those on low incomes. Particularly after a decade of austerity and static wages with rising numbers of food-banks and shortage of decent housing. The answer to ‘difficult to whom’ should be obvious.
When the difficult choices mean withholding a £20-a-week supplement to Universal Credit benefit just as other pandemic benefits cease in September, when government is offering nurses a 1% ‘pay increase’ knowing next year’s inflation will make it a wage-cut, or proposing savage cuts to aid for countries in desperate need, starving Yemen amongst several examples, you get a clue to the Conservative Party’s vision of economic recovery. When after a pandemic which has shone a spotlight on inequality, the public are told anti-poverty policy is about getting people into work at a time when BREXIT and lock-downs guarantee rising unemployment, you begin to get the picture. And when young people, writing countless job applications are left high and dry, a consistent pattern emerges. Let’s call it ‘a preferential option against the Poor’.
The kind of society found in no political Party’s manifesto is being stealthily created by the triumphant Tory Right. Their preferred option even defeats the purpose of measures designed to stop the economy imploding during the pandemic. Why? Because for months an important reason for infection rates staying dangerously high, and requiring lockdowns, has been that people on low incomes simply cannot afford to quarantine. Infected or not, workers in poorly paid jobs and in the gig economy live with permanent anxiety about making ends meet, and can feel they have no alternative but to go to work. Thanks to the decline in trades union membership there are many unprotected people working under these conditions. Not that quarantine in cramped accommodation housing three generations is likely to be very effective. And not to mention the disgraceful conditions imposed on some asylum seekers, the virus’ soft targets, off the government’s keep-safe radar. Another option taken against the most vulnerable.
The trouble with the ‘we-can’t- afford- it’ defence is that it sounds like common-sense. The retort should be ‘look at the hundreds of billions you could afford? And weren’t billions of it misspent?’ Why is it common sense to declare expenditure unaffordable for public goods supporting the most vulnerable when government can afford to squander £10 billion – and counting - of taxpayers’ money on one tranche of outsourcing to the private sector, on the notorious centralised Track & Trace scheme? It failed. (Without acknowledging such waste bypassing existing local public health networks, responsibility for vaccination services has thank heavens been placed in the hands of the NHS). We are dealing with an ideological problem; the overall aim is to shrink the state. Government will return to this once the pandemic is over.
Current strategy is to keep public scrutiny to a minimum, pursuing policy by stealth, conveniently forgetting, or treating as invisible, for example, social care and the wages of care workers including home care. Vital low paid cleaners and hospital porters also put their lives on the line. Government’s intention to shape or distract public perceptions is demonstrated by spending £2.5 million on a new Press room in Downing Street. This comes with a new White House style Press Secretary who brought us “Eat Out to Help Out” when she worked for the Chancellor.
The BBC has begun timorously questioning ‘government priorities’ - as if, once the North-Eastern Conservative constituencies have had their bungs, it might be time to consider the needs of the many who don’t live in, say, Richmond, Yorkshire the Chancellor’s seat. But when priorities are, as they say, ‘hard-baked’ in ideology and self-interest, those priorities are not going to change – though government may be forced to do something for the nurses because of the public outcry.
The British public now have a fundamental choice to make. The problem is much bigger than the wages of one profession. It is to decide what sort of society we wish our children to live in after the pandemic. If the choice is business as usual, two-nation Toryism, more of the option against the poor, we will get the country we deserve. Save us the shame. It is the responsibility of HM Opposition to offer an alternative.
See TheArticle 09/03/2021