Today’s budget won’t get us out of a vicious cycle of economic and political failures

Any personal goodwill and common sense will only get Sunak so far when his government is still in hock to Brexit and the Tory right wing

March 22, 2023
Jeremy Hunt will unveil his first budget as chancellor today. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Jeremy Hunt will unveil his first budget as chancellor today. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

At the root of the Tory political collapse is the implosion of the party’s reputation for economic competence. Seven chancellors in seven years. Even if Jeremy Hunt’s budget manages the now remarkable—and very welcome—feat of being unremarkable, he can’t erase the memory of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini budget of last September, which ranks as the most disastrous fiscal event of modern times. And that was after Brexit, which was similarly disastrous but on a slower burn. 

The premiership—five prime ministers in seven years—has been almost equally unstable, and the mutually reinforcing failure of both Number 10 and Number 11 over the last decade has underpinned the Tory catastrophe. The last prime minister and chancellor to end their respective tenures with more successes than failures were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. 

Stop for a moment and consider the turnover in perspective. The seven chancellors before the Brexit vote in 2016 served for 33 years in total; and the five prime ministers before 2016 served for 37 years, starting with Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Literally overnight, with David Cameron’s resignation the morning after the referendum in June 2016, Britain was transformed from one of the most stable into one of the most unstable democracies in Europe. 

It is equally telling that of the four changes of prime minister since 2016, none coincided with a general election. All four were brought about by catastrophic failures in government after winning elections. Cameron lost the referendum a year after the 2015 election. Theresa May lost control of Brexit and resigned a couple of years after the (admittedly bruising) 2017 election. Boris Johnson was engulfed by scandals, notably Partygate, and was booted out two and a half years after the 2019 landslide. Liz Truss unleashed an economic tsunami with no election at all. 

The fact that despite these successive implosions there has so far been no subsequent electoral penalty for the Conservative party is another facet of the deep political and economic malaise afflicting the country. For obviously there should have been an electoral consequence. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party partly explains why this didn’t happen in 2017 and 2019. So too does the misfortune that the malign consequences of Brexit did not for the most part arrive until after the event in 2021, by which point they could not be prevented at the ballot box.

Listing the catastrophes of the last seven years, which go beyond Brexit and are as much about political conduct as public policy, shows the extent to which economic and political failures have marched in step. The Brexit vote inflicted on Cameron was in part electoral revenge for George Osborne’s austerity. Corbyn, who turned out to be both incompetent and incapable, was also elected by Labour members in part as a response to austerity. As for Partygate and the other Johnson scandals, they were the consequence of having a personally as well as politically irresponsible Brexit prime minister who became unstoppable after the 2016 referendum and May’s failure to manage the crisis. Then the failure of two Brexit prime ministers in a row (May and Johnson) produced Liz Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, with their humbug of tax cuts for the rich appealing to a demoralised, Brexitised and easily seduced Tory party membership. A genuinely vicious cycle.

The big question for the budget and the Sunak premiership at large is this: has the vicious cycle been halted, or merely slowed? 

Sunak’s checklist of achievements is about one negative for each positive. Last week’s small boats monstrosity, followed by a positive summit with Macron (albeit one which failed to address the government’s goal of returning failed asylum seekers to France) summed up the predicament. Personal goodwill and common sense only get you so far when you are still in hock to Brexit and the Tory right wing. 

It is the same with economic policy. The budget heralds lots of tinkering on pensions and work-related incentives, some of it worthwhile. But the Brexit elephant in the room can’t be tackled, so if this week’s budget is a non-event, it won’t mark a return of common sense—just an absence of leadership.