“Numbers alone can ring hollow,” Rishi Sunak said at the end of his statement. But in his mouth, numbers did not ring hollow.
He brought a mysterious poetry to these figures. We are borrowing and spending far more than we can afford, or expected only a few months ago, and have also suffered “the largest fall in output for over 300 years”.
The Chancellor avowed that the debt we are accumulating is “clearly unsustainable over the medium term”.
And yet his transcendent lucidity and preternatural calm made the whole situation seem sustainable, the recovery just a matter of remaining as clear-headed and unflustered as Sunak.
Many Chancellors sound bored by the figures they read out to the House, or at least make those figures sound boring to the less numerate Members of Parliament.
Sunak somehow conveyed his love of spreadsheets in a way that Philip Hammond, his predecessor but one, never managed to do. There was a music of the spheres in all those noughts.
Lord Chesterfield said that Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721-42, when addressing MPs was
“So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”
Sunak has the same gift. And just as Walpole was trusted to clear up after the South Sea Bubble of 1720, so Sunak is trusted, at least for now, to clear up after the pandemic.
His lustrous black hair contains more streaks of grey than it did when he started in February, but otherwise he seems unaffected by the burden he bears.
In a level tone he announced “a new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion” from which any local area will be allowed to bid for projects which will have a noticeable impact and be “delivered within this Parliament”.
Sunak does not wish those Labour voters who turned Conservative last December to feel in 2024 that the Chancellor has let them down.
Nor does he wish anyone to suppose he is an unfeeling technocrat, who thinks only the figures matter. He ended by saying that the spending he had announced was “secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindness and creativity it unleashes”.
We are united in a moral mission, “a common endeavour”. Anneliese Dodds, replying for the Labour Party, was left with nothing much to say, and could not be blamed for that. She is a great improvement on her predecessor, but could not spoil Sunak’s day.