Autumn Statement: Could Jeremy Hunt statement be Rishi Sunak’s last chance saloon? - Brian Monteith
Last week was the occasion of the King’s Speech, the day when the Government’s programme for the next year is laid before parliament. It is a solemn occasion of pageantry and political grandstanding, a moment when the government of the day is able to reboot itself, inspire its MPs to make one more heave and declare to the public that it really is better than the other lot waiting in the wings.
It is a solemn occasion of pageantry and political grand-standing, a moment when the government of the day is able to reboot itself, inspire its MPs to make one more heave and declare to the public that it really is better than the other lot waiting in the wings.
It was yet another of the many opportunities that the prime minister Rishi Sunak has had to make a memorable impression, standing Colossus like, over warring party factions and an opportunist opposition. It was also yet another opportunity squandered. Can you remember what was in the King’s Speech? Were you debating it over the breakfast table the next morning, or at work, or in the gym – or wherever you might discuss politics?
The reality for the Conservative MPs that put the Prime Minister in No.10 Downing Street is when it comes to making a connection with the public, feeling their pain or understanding their woes, Rishi is no Boris. Time after time when the Tories’ real heir to Blair has a platform to reignite is premiership he flunks it. The problem is not that he is inarticulate, or never smiles, or fails to sound concerned about the troubles people might face – it’s simply that he comes over as an automated fairground fortune teller. You put your coin in the slot (these days you will tap your card) and an automaton tells your fortune – but nobody believes what you are told will make a blind bit of difference to your life.
Be it the Conservative conference speech (remember that? No, I didn’t think so) or any other event before it – Rishi Sunak has not made an impression that moves the dial. Labour remains clearly in the lead and the sand is falling through the hourglass. Sunak’s government is running out of opportunities to change course or make an announcement that people cheer from the rooftops, or at least is the talk of the 44 bus.
Yes, he could have a reshuffle, but moving Grant Shapps ubiquitously to yet another job, while rewarding Kemi Badenoch for her successes at business and trade, or finding a more public role for Penny Mordaunt is not going to gain the traction in the polls he desperately needs. He is of course being urged to sack home secretary Suella Braverman by the likes of people who would not ordinarily consider voting Tory even if he did show her the door. So why should he?
Anyhow, her dismissal would only push yet more people away from the Conservatives, possibly towards Richard Tice and Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. If Sunak really wants to win attention, raise a cheer that can be heard echoing around the country, and show he’s in control he could always sack Michael Gove, but that’s unlikely to happen either.
No, a reshuffle might change the colour of the paint on the front door, but that door’s still likely to be slammed shut in his face no matter what colour it is. The next big moment where Sunak’s government can make a difference is the Autumn Statement, coming up fast on November 22. After that there will no doubt be a speech at COP28 in Dubai (eminently forgettable) with only the Budget in Spring before English council and Mayoral elections on 2nd May – a key date if the Conservatives believe that it is the best opportunity to encourage a higher turnout of supporters that are likely to stay at home.
It is the Autumn Statement that lays the foundations for the Spring Budget so we should expect Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to have discussed the strategy of how they make people believe in this current iteration of conservatism. The latest economic figures for the third quarter of 2024 showed the UK economy with no growth – and the fear is spreading this is the new normal the British economy faces in the long term – flatlining its way to mediocrity.
Well, actually it’s worse than that because real threat then becomes the country’s growing debt burden as the commitments to spending on the NHS and the structural rise in welfare will take the economy to a reckoning, as falling tax revenues from non-existent growth means the economy finally goes into freefall.
The fact even Labour has stolen the language of Liz Truss in identifying growth as the top economic priority tells you how isolated Sunak’s Conservatives now are. Hunt and Sunak need to find their way out of this Eton Mess of their own making and the only way to do it is to accept uncomfortable idea that Truss had the right idea, even if they cannot accept her particular tax cuts were the right choices to make.
In a suitably timely manner Professor Patrick Minford has published a paper for the Centre for Brexit Policy advocating an £85 billion tax cut now to avert the threat of a debt mountain crushing living standards over the next few years. (It sounds a lot but it would merely take us back to levels of tax before Sunak became prime minister.) Minford suggests a mix of corporate and personal tax cuts that could achieve UK growth averaging 2 per cent per annum over the next decade. Minford believes it is better to fund a short-term fall off in revenue with borrowing to deliver growth that will deliver long-term solvency.
I believe he’s right, but it has to be done now – not waiting until the Spring Budget, by then it will be too late. Sunak’s already in the last chance saloon, but is he going to raise our spirits or drown his sorrows?
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