That was Rishi Sunak’s second major Commons statement in a month, and nearly his tenth in less than a year, since he delivered his first Budget mid-March.
By now, another politician might well have exhausted both voters’ and his party’s patience, but the Chancellor has been buttressed, first, by his fluency, authority and grasp; second, by the extraordinary context of the pandemic and, finally, by the fact that there was no practicable alternative, as the economy bled when struck by the virus earlier this year, but to rush for a blood tranfusion – in other words, higher spending to keep it alive
There is a difference between the measures Sunak introduced before Parliament broke for the summer, and those he has annnounced since it returned. Earlier this year, he was casting around for a response programme, improvising as he went along. (Remember the concessions in March to pressure from the self-employed.) Yesterday, he largely tweaked measures already announced in September.
So it is that the Job Support Scheme will be made more generous for employers, and self-employed income support will cover 40 per cent rather than 20 per cent of people’s incomes. There is a new grants scheme for businesses impacted by the Tier Two restrictions.
Why didn’t the Chancellor didn’t announce that last intervention earlier this week – thus perhaps saving the Government its troubles with Andy Burnham? Some of Greater Manchester’s Conservative MPs will be asking the question.
However, it isn’t clear that the Greater Manchester Mayor would have been satisfied, and it may be that Ministers were determined not to allow Burnham’s grandstanding to pay off. The Government line is that Manchester shouldn’t get more favourable treatment than other cities.
Sunak will be accused of dragging his feet elsewhere, too – of not seeing, for example, that the original Job Support Scheme measure would risk low take-up. Firms were being asked to pay 55 per cent of wages to staff who under the terms of the scheme could work for only 33 per cent of their previous hours.
Two-thirds of wages will now be covered. You can see the change either as a sign that the Chancellor now has a framework flexible enough to update quickly, or that he should indeed have anticipated rising Coronavirus cases, further lockdowns and restictions – and more damage to the economy.
Perhaps the Downing Street tendency, the hope that something will turn up, has spread to the Treasury. Sometimes, the stress from government is on a vaccine coming soon. Previously, it was that track and trace would deliver. Recently, it is that new mass tests will work.
It may be that Sunak has been expecting more wins, in the debates at the top of the Government over Covid-19 policy, than he has managed to pull off. And relied on Boris Johnson, who tends to veer about “like a shopping trolley” (the Prime Minister’s own words), to come down less on the side of restriction.
At any rate, the Chancellor did his best yesterday to move that internal discussion along. “The Prime Minister was right to outline a balanced approach to tackling coronavirus,” he said, “taking the difficult decisions to save lives and keep the R rate down, while doing everything in our power to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people.”
It was prudent of him to borrow Johnson’s name for his push for a policy approach more attuned to what’s usually called “the economy” – i.e: jobs, wages and living standards. But it’s worth remembering that it’s not yet a month since he told the Commons that “our lives can no longer be put on hold”.
However, they are essentially on hold, and too many aren’t “living without fear” (to quote another of his lines). If that’s to change, the Government will need collectively to try to change the tone of the Covid conversation – to consider the wider consequences of both the virus and restrictions for healthcare and the economy.
This site has called for a regular Treasury report on economic costs, a rolling Department of Health assessment of healthcare costs, and the creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE that considers livelihoods as well as lives, thus ensuring broader advice to the Prime Minister. We have not been alone.
And yesterday, Mel Stride, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, pointed out in the Commons that the Government’s Chief Economic Adviser, Clare Lombardelli, has been tasked with assessing an analysis of the economic impact of shutdowns. He suggested that she or another “similar economic expert should join the epidemiologists for No. 10 Covid press briefings”.
The Chancellor played that suggestion with a very dead bat, but Stride will want to keep pushing over Lombardelli’s analysis. The committee itself is already been probing the effects of the virus and public policy on the economy – taking evidence as recently as Wednesday for its inquiry into them. We look forward to its findings.