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Since we don’t know the future of the Coronavirus, we don’t know that of social distancing.  And since we don’t know that of social distancing, we don’t know that of restaurants.

It may be that a vaccine for the virus arrives, or that herd immunity is eventually achieved – or that having come like the thunder, Covid suddenly vanishes like the wind.  Or that it turns out to be a seasonal disease, falling away in the summer, as people enjoy the open air, and rising again in the winter, anywhere that people congregate indoors.

In which case, the future of restaurants, pubs and cafes will be very different from the past – from the world before roughly the start of March.  It will simply not be profitable for many of them to open as they have done with only a percentage of their customers.

In such circumstances, some will spill onto the streets when the weather is warm, taking advantage of the Government’s easing of outdoor restrictions, an ideas flagged up early on this site by Nick Boys-Smith.  Makeshift tarpaulins will be hauled up to ward off summer rain.

In the winter, they will be decorated with patio heaters.  But for some restauranteers, such adaptation is impossible, or just too much of a struggle.  We probe the matter because restaurants starred in the final section of Rishi Sunak’s statement today, in one of the few sections of it not to have been trailed.

Dishy Rishi’s dishes plan – his “eat out to help out” discount scheme – may whet your appetite.  Or you may wave away this cooked-up idea as a gimmick.  But either way, it ended his statement where it had started: the Chancellor has made his choice.  He will try to preserve, as best he can, the world of pre-Covid 19.

Sunak began his brief statement – getting to his feet at 12.38 and sitting down again at 13.03 – by claiming that the Government is “unencumbered by dogma” and “driven always by the desire to do what is right”.  By which he meant that it will intervene to achieve certain goals, or try to.

These are above all “to protect, support and create jobs”.  That’s to say, specifically: jobs for young people, the jobs dependent on our housing market working, jobs that come from government infrastucture spending, “green jobs” and, as we have seen, jobs in hospitality and tourism.

Some on the Right are less fussed about this exercise in picking winners, or rather survivors, than their anti-intervention rhetoric might lead one to believe.  So for example, they have no objection to the temporary cut in stamp duty, wishing only that it were permanent, or that the tax might be scrapped altogether.

Ending stamp duty would be good enough in itself, but not enough by itself: in other words, it would be a thoroughly bad thing simply to seek to re-heat Britain’s loaded housing system, biased as it is in favour of those who already own property and against those who wish to do so.  Stamp duty cuts should go hand in hand with planning reform.

This site is happy enough with state action to help people, whether through tax cuts or higher spending.  Iain Duncan Smith’s unique contribution to public life, and that of the Centre for Social Justice which he founded, is to have grasped that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.

Tax cuts don’t reach those who pay no tax at all, or who are so indebted that reductions are of little use to them, or are struggling with alcohol and substance abuse, or who have left the state education system unable to read.  For them, government must be the guarantor, if not necessarily the provider, of help, services and opportunities.

So in saying that he is “unencumbered by dogma”, Sunak was signalling the latest Tory retreat from Thatcherism – as it is sometimes proclaimed to be though not at all how it was always practised.  Boris Johnson’s boosterism follows Theresa May’s good that government can do and David Cameron’s view that there’s such a thing as society.

It is possible that this insistence on the role of the state will itself harden into a new dogma, shaped by left-wing antipathy to civil society as well as individual freedom, that will capture all of the main political parties, damaging Britain as it does so: the prospect sketched out on this site last weekend by David Gauke.

But what concerns us more, in the wake of the Chancellor’s statement, is a more subtle, unspoken, assumed dogma: that government should work to recreate the economy that existed before Coronavirus arrived here from China.  The Chancellor is a highly intelligent man, and knows that such an aim is unrealisable.

Viewing his statement was like watching a man groping his way in the dark, knowing well that the future is unreadable, trying to hold on to as much of the past as he can, and whistling as he does so – morale-raising melodies about VAT cuts, kickstart schemes, decarbonising social housing and job retention bonuses.

We like the focus on young people, are sceptical that all these green jobs will be quite what they’re cracked up to be, and believe that the tax cuts are fine as far as they go.  The £30 billion cost of the programme will presumably be met largely by taking a chance of borrowing at present low interest rates.

But how impactful any of these measures turn out to be, given the Covid-19 uncertainties, no-one can possibly know, including Sunak himself – who delivered his statement with the lean, direct eloquence which which we’re becoming familiar.

It is hard to believe that he has been at the top of British politics for less than six months.  Nonetheless, the Chancellor understands that what goes up, including to the top of ConHome’s Cabinet League Table, can come down.

Perhaps this is why he spoke for less than half an hour today.  There was as much that wasn’t in his statement as was: it didn’t sweep across the Government’s plans for universities, or the future of railways, or rough sleepers.  He was concentrating his efforts on a relatively narrow front.

“Where problems emerge, we will confront them. Where support is justified, we will provide it. Where challenges arise, we will overcome them,” he said.  Behind that fabulously assured front, Sunak must surely have his doubts.

109 comments for: Sunak whistles in the dark

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