Some people are very good in a crisis. They keep their heads, leap into action, work effectively despite finding themselves at the centre of chaos. Think of those members of the ordinary public who tackle would-be terrorists. Or the hundreds of people every year who perform lifesaving CPR on perfect strangers. Or those amongst us who refused to panic buy toilet roll in March.
Rishi Sunak is good in a crisis. His furlough scheme was unprecedented, massive, speedy and genuinely lifesaving for millions of workers. His persona – geeky, strangely attractive, energetic and calm – reassured millions more as our economy stood on a cliff edge. His flexibility to swiftly changing events has been deft and appropriately non-ideological for a man steering the nation through unforeseen calamity.
But being good in a crisis is not quite the same thing as being good. You may very well be grateful to the have-a-go hero who gave you mouth to mouth. You probably wouldn’t let that gratitude convince you to allow them to conduct open heart surgery on you afterwards. And the truth about Sunak is that we have no idea whether his skills amount to anything more than disaster management.
This week he delivered his much heralded spending review. You will have seen the specific measures – from billions spent on upgrading our creaky defence infrastructure to a pork barrel fund for raids in the North and a cut to aid spending – but it is the politics that is interesting here. Because this package tells us vanishingly little about Sunak’s preferences or skills as a politician. It does not answer the question of whether he believes balancing the books matters more than investing in welfare and productivity. It does not tell us whether he shares his Prime Minister’s liberal instincts or those of most of his other, fellow Vote Leave veterans. It doesn’t even tell us whether he considers the measures that he took during the pandemic – from furlough to eat-out – as positive innovations or splurges he now regrets.
This was a cobbled together, piecemeal piece of work. And Sunak’s apparent lack of an overarching political or ideological narrative left him vulnerable to the sort of lobbying (from backbenchers to his own PM) that skilled Chancellors are able to dodge. One doubts very much that the Treasury was overjoyed to be writing MoD an almost blank cheque. Instead, this was a (mini) budget absent of real choices or of obvious purpose.
No-one doubts that Sunak is a winning chap who has done well in terrifically difficult circumstances. He has been good in this crisis. But what happens when we are through it, vaccinated up and back to (almost) normal? Does he have the grit, the gumption and the ideas to see him through good times as well as bad? It remains to be seen, of course. But he has stored up an awful lot of difficult decision-making and made no real attempt to roll the pitch in advance. That doesn’t bode well for our have-a-go chancellor.