Today, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to outline the Budget and unveil new measures to support Britain’s post-Covid recovery. Under the slated proposals, the NHS staff Sunak clapped for so recently are set to miss out on a pay rise, and the self-employed who have been disregarded for the past year are expected to be subject to tax raids.
But following the release of a self-promotional video which detailed Sunak’s successes in the past year, these flaws don’t seem to matter. In a remarkable feat, the Chancellor has made the Budget not about the nation or its citizens, but about himself.
Sunak, dubbed the ‘rising star’ of the current administration, has been lauded for his response to Covid-19. Journalists have fallen at his feet: the BBC called him a superhero, and the Times adorned him with a halo. Unveiling a social media presence which blurs the line between minister and influencer—a link-point with the youth, of which most of his middle-aged peers could only dream—Sunak has embraced identity politics in the most basic definition of the term.
The veneer of calm, stylish competence makes the reality of Sunak’s politics all the more insidious. Despite his claims to success, the Chancellor has been instrumental in extending the length of the UK’s struggle with Covid and increasing the world-beating death toll. This was most clear in his advocacy for returning to offices and his opposition to a second lockdown: Sunak even invited lockdown sceptic scientists to see Boris Johnson to persuade him not to introduce a ‘circuit-breaker’ last autumn. Unfortunately, there’s no space for this information in the cultivation of his personal brand.
Sunak has staunchly refused to bring in the majority of economic measures that could actually help Britain face the worst of the virus – and get over it faster. It’s common knowledge that Britain’s pitifully low rate of Statutory Sick Pay is a major driver of Covid-19, but rather than addressing that problem, the Chancellor is more inclined to spend public money on branded promotions like Eat Out to Help Out which further increase infection rates. (Faced with this information, Sunak later commented that ‘at every point we have made the right decisions at the right time’, and said it would be ‘odd’ to blame Eat Out to Help Out.)
Sunak has excluded three million people from his support package, and while the furlough scheme itself is welcome, the repeated threats to end it were not: back in October, he left the announcement of its extension late enough to mean many had already lost their jobs. Germany, by comparison, had already committed to continuing furlough through to the end of 2021 back in August 2020. He seems to have finally learned this lesson – but many months too late.
Rishi Sunak’s real talents include disappearing for long stretches, resurfacing only to front polished marketing campaigns and hang out with celebrities. In the latest episode of ‘Rishi Meets’, on the Chancellor’s very own YouTube channel, Sunak met Gordon Ramsay to hear about the challenges facing hospitality – the same Gordon Ramsay who axed 500 staff and reportedly used the government’s furlough scheme to pay them their notice. What more consolation could working people hope for than to see two multi-millionaires discussing their plight?
At every stage, optics were prioritised over health. Perhaps the worst thing about this method of governance is that it works: Sunak has the highest satisfaction ratings for a Chancellor since Denis Healey in 1978.
The choices of the government make clear its allegiances: put simply, this administration would prefer to line the pockets of its affluent peers than feed hungry children. The same has been true over the course of the last ten years of cronyism and austerity, but the pandemic and Sunak’s response has exemplified it.
Tory politicians cannot contemplate or respond to a life they don’t live. Rishi Sunak is part of that problem: the son-in-law of a billionaire and the holder of a considerable property portfolio to supplement his ministerial and MP salaries, he is thought to be the richest person in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, in office, Sunak has overseen the continuation of a system of public spending that cuts welfare for poor people and spends billions on outsourced healthcare systems at a time when the consequences are most dire. Plans to hike taxes for freelance workers—a group that has been given almost a third less in state support than employees this year—hit the vulnerable where it hurts. They also align with Sunak’s record of voting against higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability.
After today’s Budget, it remains to be seen how long Sunak’s popularity can be sustained past the power of an Instagram infographic. In the long-term, it’s possible Rishi’s branding team may prove to have overestimated the longevity of the one quality he does truly possess: not being Boris Johnson.