The Rishi reality check

Truth-telling chancellors don’t reach the top. Sunak will want to sound responsible, while leaving it to a successor to take responsibility for higher taxes

March 03, 2021
Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

Dishy Rishi is darling of the Tory party, the glamorous counterpoint and heir apparent to Brexit Boris. No 11’s media machine excelled itself this week with an extraordinary five-minute film—“The 12 months to Budget 2021”—a Hollywood romance with rousing music and footage as our dashing hero, in soft focus, meets health workers and young jobseekers and shares their pain.

However, chancellors usually don’t become prime minister, even though the occupant of No 11 has long been the second-most important figure in the Cabinet, taking over this role from the foreign secretary as the economy replaced Empire as the nation’s biggest concern (at least until Brexit Britain).

“Sunny” Jim Callaghan, chancellor under Harold Wilson in the 1960s was another sedulous optimism projector, and an exception, eventually succeeding Wilson mid-term in 1976, but he was foreign secretary by then and hadn’t been chancellor for nearly a decade. Apart from him, only John Major and Gordon Brown, among the 10 PMs since Wilson, had been chancellors, both also taking over mid-term. All three of these ex-chancellor leaders lost subsequent general elections, largely because they were tarred with the brush of economic disappointment.

By contrast, the electorally successful prime ministers of the last half century were never “bean counters.” They either projected a supreme unconcern about the details of taxation and spending (Blair, Cameron and Johnson), or managed to adroitly change their chancellor, like a used car, when they needed a “relaunch.” Thatcher and Wilson, brilliant manoeuvrers both, each had three Chancellors.

So the test for Rishi, if the astonishingly indestructible Boris lasts a while yet, is can he remain popular and unsacked when he starts putting up taxes and taking the tough decisions required to balance the books after Covid?

For the moment Rishi is unsackable. Boris has already had two chancellors in two years and Rishi is currently the most popular politician in England. His position is akin to that of Roy Jenkins, the replacement chancellor after Callaghan’s humiliating devaluation in 1967, and Ken Clarke after Norman Lamont’s equally humiliating exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on “Black Wednesday.”

Yet neither Jenkins nor Clarke, by far the most able members of the governments in which they served, made it to No 10 as many had expected. In subsequent leadership contests they both suffered from the very reputation for ruthless honesty which underpinned their chancellorial success. It was the same with Denis Healey, the fairly successful chancellor throughout the Labour government of 1974-79, the tough inflationary years after the 1973 oil shock. Healey was beaten to the leadership by the romantic Michael Foot in 1980: he had spoken too much truth to power.

Rishi isn’t the ruthlessly honest type. My friends in the Treasury tell me he has done precious little preparation of serious options for repairing the books for fear of them leaking and making him unpopular. This week’s budget will offer little about strategy after Covid, beyond bromides of fiscal responsibility.

Rishi has another problem. His instincts are Thatcherite. He sounds off in private about the “wild socialism” the pandemic necessitates. As a rich Winchester- and Oxford-educated banker with a conceit that his success is self-made, he is much less sympathetic to the poor and dispossessed than the soft-focus mannequin suggests. But he obviously likes his image, and he wants to delay for as long as possible making what I suspect he will be his ultimate choice, which is to come out as the chancellor of the affluent shires, not the left-behind red wall.

“To govern is to choose,” said the French prime minister Pierre Mendes-France, who courageously got France out of Vietnam in the 1950s. But Mendes-France never held office again. From my observation and experience of government, with guile and determination, you can often delay even the most pressing choices for a good while, sometimes for years. Rishi strikes me as someone who would want to do just that.

I have a helpful suggestion as to how he might do so. Announce an independent commission to look at the “the responsible path ahead for tax and spending.” Call it “the Responsibility Commission.” Ask it to take at least six months—better, make it nine months so no choices need to be announced until next year’s budget or even be discussed until early next year. Who knows, one of those Boris buses may have knocked down the PM by then, allowing Rishi to move next door and appoint a new chancellor to put up taxes (then be sacked if it goes wrong).

Who should chair the commission? Ah, of course, an ex-chancellor of great reputation and rectitude who never reached No 10. Step forward Ken Clarke. Or Alistair Darling. Or Philip Hammond. Better still, engage all three, but not Austerity Osborne (wrong image). Give them lots of air miles. Let them start their research in Australia and take their time coming back.

Harold Wilson, the maestro of commissions, once said of them: “they take minutes and last years.” Meanwhile, you can always borrow—responsibly, of course, while waiting for the Responsibility Commission to report and for that bus to accelerate.