HENRY DEEDES: Rishi Sunak dazzled pure sunshine… but did his miraculous banquet of freebies stick in Boris’s craw?
Rishi Sunak sat alone, his head a swirl of heaven-knows-what as he awaited his latest date with destiny.
Around the chamber, every eyeball was fixed upon him. Those denied access peered round doorways like distracted ostriches. Up in the press gallery, pen-chewing hacks craned to cop a better view. Tension throbbed.
A mere Summer Statement this might have been, but really it was so much more than that. It was a one-time pitch to save our frazzled economy. Yet amid this taut scene, Rishi perched unprickled, totally unfazed by the enormity of the moment.
Shortly after 12.30pm Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle rose from his padded throne. ‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer!’ he hollered. To a chorus of noise, Rishi strode toward the despatch box to deliver what turned out to be a 30-minute speech – half an hour to shape an entire generation.
Around the chamber, every eyeball was fixed upon him. Those denied access peered round doorways like distracted ostriches. Up in the press gallery, pen-chewing hacks craned to cop a better view. Tension throbbed
Once again the young Chancellor, on whose dainty shoulders rests so much, dazzled the House. It was a speech dripping with Rishi-ness: imaginative and empathetic, with plenty of sunshine pouring through the skylights.
Will his pledges be enough? Only time will tell. But what a composed performance it was.
On his brilliant Budget debut four months ago, he started out like a Bambi-eyed fawn. Yesterday, right from the off, he looked a different creature: sleeker, more assured.
He began sombrely. He spoke of those who were ‘anxious about losing their job, about unemployment rising’. He does the tender stuff very well, Rishi. His predecessors in the Treasury such as Gordon Brown and Philip Hammond did sympathy about as well as the Duke of York does charm.
Once again the young Chancellor, on whose dainty shoulders rests so much, dazzled the House. It was a speech dripping with Rishi-ness: imaginative and empathetic, with plenty of sunshine pouring through the skylights
We heard about ‘the special bond’ which brought us all together during the crisis, made possible by the strength of the United Kingdom. Och! The SNP grumblers didn’t like that. Across the way, I could just make out their Treasury spokesman Alison Thewliss’s eyes flickering irritably from side to side.
There were appreciative nods as the Chancellor focused on helping out the young. He spoke of the need for apprenticeships, traineeships, career advisors. As he laid out these plans, some Labour MPs listened itchily. For the most part though they drank it up in respectful silence.
Directly behind the Chancellor, two rows back, was Sajid Javid, giving each announcement little thwacks of approval. Until February, The Saj had been Rishi’s boss in the Treasury. How cruelly the political wheel turns. How quickly reputations fade.
As Rishi turned attention to his energy-saving green homes initiatives, acting Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey began making furious jabbing gestures at himself. At first I was worried Sir Ed might have got a piece of bubblegum trapped in his gullet until I realised he was trying to claim these were his ideas. Oh well. Not as if the Lib Dems are going to be able to put them into practice any time soon.
The first great cheer from the government benches came when it was announced there’d be a temporary axing of stamp duty on homes costing less than £500,000. At this moment, the Prime Minister, sat further along from his Chancellor, spun around, looking to bathe himself in the appreciation of colleagues. He only succeeded in locking eyes with Javid. The pair exchanged sheepish hellos. Awkward.
The PM did not look altogether chipper at the adulation his young charge was garnering. He spent most of the session slumped petulantly, his lower jaw jutting the way Gordon Brown’s once did when in one of his sulks.
The first great cheer from the government benches came when it was announced there’d be a temporary axing of stamp duty on homes costing less than £500,000. At this moment, the Prime Minister, sat further along from his Chancellor, spun around, looking to bathe himself in the appreciation of colleagues.
His right leg spent most of the time juddering up and down impatiently as though he had somewhere better to be. Occasionally, he would hoist one of those great ham hocks over the other and sit back sprawled, cowboy-style.
He perked up when the Chancellor announced he was cutting VAT to just 5 per cent, shooting the opposition a smug look as if to say ‘Whaddayathinkathat?’ Further coos of delight greeted the imaginative ‘eat out to help out’ scheme. That slightly stately figure John Penrose (Con, Weston-super-Mare) turned to the press gallery and began shouting ‘Down the pub, everyone!’ Moneybags Penrose, I’d wager, has never set foot in a boozer in his life.
And there was some lovely personal stuff to finish. Rishi said his statement was ‘not a question of economics but of values’. He talked of ‘the nobility of work, the inspiring power of opportunity’.
Social distancing rules prevented the customary backslaps from colleagues but there were warm gurgles of approvals.
His opposite number, Anneliese Dodds, was nervy as a number 11 batsman in the pavilion. Bit of a jumpy character, I fear. Has that permanent look of someone who’s left the gas on.
Sir Keir Starmer nodded along supportively at her response – though I noticed his focus for most of the session remained centred on the slight man opposite her. Some say it’s the Chancellor, not the Prime Minister, whom he now fears the most.