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Rishi Sunak has got a slick Instagram game, his signed Tweets are infamous and he’s started In Conversation videos with people like Gordon Ramsay. Heck, he even has an email newsletter like all the best people (though nowhere near as good as mine, obvs).
The chancellor is certainly not publicity-shy, nor lacking in ego, as the nearly six-minute long clip he put out yesterday made painfully plain. That promo was in many ways a kind of political humblebrag, his modest “gosh..me?” when told he was being catapulted to the top job at the Treasury contrasting with the fact that he was telling the world just how modest he was.
Yet despite the Twitterati ridicule he endures (and seems to actively invite), Sunak knows that as long as he comes across as reasonable, fluent and genuinely compassionate to the more typical general public, he can help neutralise years of “nasty party”/“same old Tories” narratives. Even the authentic geekiness (Star Wars, Coca-Cola obsession) may be seen as oddly endearing.
As ever, the risk with all this self-promotion (as opposed to policy promotion) is of appearing politically tone deaf. When you’re a millionaire former financier married to the heiress of a billionaire, talk of “we” and “us” coping with the downturn in the pandemic can certainly jar. That clip of him holding his budget box up, twirling round for the camera indoors, sent a message he was just loving his dream job. Meanwhile, millions fear that they’ll have no job at all later this year, once that extended furlough is removed.
Of course, criticising a politician for being ambitious is as ludicrous as criticising the British summer for being wet. There’s also a difference between being ambitious and being a careerist who simply wants to climb the greasy pole for its own sake. And that charge is hard to level against Sunak for one good reason: Brexit.
It should not be forgotten that back in February 2016, the shiny young new MP took the bold decision to back Vote Leave. Then chancellor George Osborne is understood to have hinted to him that if he came on board for Remain, he’d get a government job, but Sunak put Brexit first.
Now, it could be argued that Sunak waited for a certain big beast to jump first (Boris Johnson tore up his pro-Remain column for the Telegraph and backed Leave just five days before Sunak “came out” as a Brexiteer to his local paper). You could even argue that his hand was forced by wanting to keep his local Tory association sweet. Yet he nevertheless took quite a risk.
But it’s worth looking at exactly what Sunak said back in 2016 to the Yorkshire Post. He put control of immigration high on his list (even though it’s not entirely clear his rural constituency had any experience of migration problems). He also said his experience as a global businessman convinced him the UK had to tap into growing markets rather than rely on the EU.
Most relevant of all given his current job, some economists would have their heads in their hands on reading Sunak’s claims. To give one example: “Since we joined the Common Market, Europe’s share of the word economy has halved and is still falling.” The US’s global share has fallen by half too since 1960 but isn’t that the very nature of a more globalised economy?
Sunak also suggested a Canada-style trade deal would happen because somehow the EU needed UK trade more than vice versa. (“Six million jobs in the EU are linked to UK trade and we buy £60 billion more from Europe than Europe buys from us.”) That proved politically and not just economically naive. He added that while only “five per cent of businesses export to the EU, yet all businesses are stifled by excessive EU red tape”. The shellfish industry may politely disagree.
Now, there are and were electorally powerful reasons why the British public backed Brexit, not least the argument that national sovereignty mattered more than everything, including economics. Some Brexiteers are even candid enough to say there will be medium term damage to trade but in the long run it will be worth it.
Yet Sunak, one of whose watchwords in the budget is meant to be “honesty”, has been signally silent on the merits of Brexit of late. In fact, the chancellor was all but mute on the topic in his spending review last November. The elephant in the room was gagged and bound and forgotten about.
It took the Office for Budget Responsibility (the clue is in the name) to point out the same day that while a no-deal exit would mean a 2% hit to GDP, even a Brexit deal would not avoid a 4% hit to UK output over the medium term. To put that in context, even if there is a sharp recovery this year, Brexit will take more out of our economy than the whole of the pandemic.
Of course, Keir Starmer is unlikely to be the one to raise this on Wednesday. Yet if he really was honest, Sunak would have to explain just why the Brexit he supported had left the UK facing such a big hit to its economy. He should also be honest about the hit caused by the likely loss of financial services income even if he gets a memorandum of understanding with the EU.
Sunak loves using the political equivalent of that Wickes slogan “it’s got our name on it”. But on Brexit downsides, as on corporation tax rises and spikes in unemployment after September, I suspect he won’t be adding his signature to everything that flows from his budget.