Sunak’s bailout billions mean tough choices ahead

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Poor old Boris. He’s not even been Prime Minister a full year and already his replacement is being anointed.

Rishi Sunak is the heir apparent, apparently, and it is not simply because of his largesse with the national credit card. His handling of the coronavirus recession has been impressive, not least for managing to keep nine million people employed through his job retention scheme, but he has also grasped the importance of national unity in a time of crisis. 

Delivering his latest economic statement, he sent a pointed message to the SNP: ‘This crisis has highlighted the special bond which holds our country together. Millions of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been protected by the UK government’s economic interventions – and they will be supported by today’s Plan for Jobs. No nationalist can ignore the undeniable truth: this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.’

The Chancellor’s £1,000 job retention bonus, cuts to VAT and Stamp Duty, and £10 vouchers for dining in popular restaurants like Pizza Hut will help prop up the economy, but his use of the Treasury’s coffers to protect Scottish families and businesses is a powerful example of how being part of the United Kingdom benefits Scotland. He has made a better practical case for the Union than any opposition politician at Holyrood has managed for some time. 

It is evident from Michael Gove’s appointment to chair a new Cabinet subcommittee dubbed ‘the Ministry for the Union’ that Downing Street is — finally — alive to the growing threat of separatism. Money alone cannot save the Union but Sunak is in a unique position to demonstrate just what the broad shoulders of the UK can do for Scotland. This is not merely a transactional relationship but a statement of solidarity across four nations. 

Had Scotland been a separate country when Covid-19 hit, it would have been left to fend for itself. Sunak has shown that we are part of something bigger and that cooperation and the pooling and sharing of resources is as much in our self-interest as it is in the interests of the Union. When disaster struck, we did not look out only for ourselves, we put our treasure at the disposal of all who needed it. Even as national and devolved governments went at their own pace and according to their own policies on lockdown, testing and masks, we pulled together where it mattered. 

Sunak has been the focal point of that effort and he has shouldered the responsibility calmly but efficiently and with fortitude. In setting aside his own Tory instincts about public spending and debt to do the right thing by ordinary Britons and businesses, he has laid down a marker for how to be a leader rather than a partisan in a moment of strife. There are some politicians north of the border who could learn a thing or two from him. 

That he is already being talked of as a future PM is perhaps unsurprising given his current role as Santa Claus for grown-ups, but it is a quiet commentary on how much Britain has changed for the better. The Hindu son of a Kenyan-born father and a Tanzanian mother whose families originated in India holds the second-highest office in government. From migration to Downing Street in one generation is a testament both to Sunak and to the country his parents chose to make home. 

While Sunak is a fascinating entrant to the political races, talk of the premiership is hasty at this point, not least because of his current post. In the last hundred years, roughly a quarter of Chancellors have gone on to serve as Prime Minister but their fates have been mixed. Sunak can take succour from the career trajectories of Lloyd George, Churchill and Macmillan, but he must also reckon with Law, Callaghan and Brown.

Chancellors are not supposed to be liked. They are supposed to put up fuel duty and make us fork over more for a pint. The Treasury is the ultimate source of most of the unpopular decisions a government takes and the more unpopular the decisions, the more unpopular the man responsible. 

Which is why Sunak’s moment in the sun may well be short-lived. As every parent knows, it’s easy enough to dole out sweets to children — it’s getting them to brush their teeth that’s the battle. The Chancellor will eventually run out of pizza vouchers and when he does, a greasy slice of reality will be served up to all of us. 

Sunak’s spending is being funded by government borrowing and that will eventually have to be paid for. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates the deficit is now in excess of £300 billion, around £254 billion higher than last year and double what it was at the peak of the global financial crisis. Public debt stands at a colossal £1.95 trillion, or 101 per cent of GDP, the first time since 1963 that government debt has been larger than the economy itself. 

The reckoning that is heading our way will be punishing. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the Mail on Sunday his government would ‘not go back to the austerity of 10 years ago’, which is an indication of two things: 1) there will be a return to some sort of austerity and 2) tax rises are on the cards. In truth, to bring the public finances back to manageable levels of debt and deficit will require both painful cuts to public spending and income-squeezing revenue hikes. It is unavoidable. There really is no magic money tree. 

When the time comes to pay the piper, Rishi Sunak could go from youthful and exciting prime ministerial material to the most hated man in Britain. On his watch, we can expect to see harsh cuts, sharp tax increases and chronic unemployment. He should begin in earnest linking his stimulus spending to the common national endeavour to beat coronavirus. 

For now, government is making fiscal sacrifices while millions remain at home, but the next stage will mean us taking the financial hit in our taxes to prevent our economy and public services from imploding. Government and taxpayers will have to work hand-in-hand for a recovery that restores economic health and allows for taxes to be lowered again. 

That is not an easy message to sell but if Sunak can do it, talk of Number 10 might not be so premature after all. 

*****

Everywhere you look, anger and hatred seem to be consuming the world. The worst of humanity is carried live, retweeted in approval or outrage, and monopolises the front pages. Sooner or later, you start to wonder if everything is rotten. 

Then there are people like Max Aubin. Last month, Aubin was one of six people stabbed at a Glasgow hotel by Sudanese asylum seeker Badreddin Abadlla Adam, who was then fatally shot by firearms officers. 

Here is what Aubin has since told the BBC about his attacker: ‘We have to forgive him. I am alive and once the doctor said I would be okay, I prayed for him. I forgave him already.’

Such charity of spirit just floors you. Aubin, who is from Côte d’Ivoire, is a Christian who has taken to heart Scripture’s teaching to ‘bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’. Whatever faith we have, or even if we have none, we should try to be as generous and compassionate as Max Aubin.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © HM Treasury CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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