For most modern chancellors their budget – particularly their first budget – has been very much their day. What is their vision for the British economy? What are their priorities and their foibles? What element of their personality will characterise their approach to taxation and public spending – and how will that either reinforce or rub up against the personality and ambitions of the prime minister they serve?
For Gordon Brown this held because he was seen as Blair’s rival. For George Osborne it held because he was seen as Cameron’s equal. For Hammond and for Darling because they were seen as their prime ministers’ foils. But for Rishi Sunak this does not hold – or, at least, not yet. Sunak is not a rival to his boss. He is certainly not his equal. And if the circumstances surrounding his elevation to the great office of chancellor tell us anything, it is surely that Sunak is not a foil either.
Boris Johnson wants to govern differently to his predecessors. He is not ‘first among equals’ but the First Lord of the Treasury and master of all he surveys. He takes up space to a phenomenal degree – political space, emotional space, column inches and – he hopes – physical acreage upon which he will build the bridges, houses and railways of which he dreams. This is government not by cabinet but by cabaret, and he is the star.
He knows that this is a dangerous position in which to place himself but also that it is the only way in which he can govern. And so he rations the public’s access to him in order to obscure the extent to which his personality is the ideology of his government. The soap operatic quality of his personal life adds to the fascination – of the public, of his colleagues – which sustains him. He does not need to appear in Wellington boots at the first sign of rain because he lives vividly – for good and for ill – in the psyche of the public whether he is actually doing anything or not.
All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that Wednesday will not be Rishi Sunak’s day. It will be Boris Johnson’s day. Yes, Mr. Sunak will beam down a camera whilst waving his red box. Yes, Mr. Sunak willspring to his feet at the despatch box. Yes, Mr. Sunak will read out the stats prepared by his civil servants. But what everyone will really want to know is what all of this, and the announcements and the investments, says about Johnson.
Will he stick with his manifesto pledge, that this first budget of his government would be focussed around green issues? Does he understand the scale of the economic challenge posed by COVID 19? Is he serious about throwing money at the seats that he won in the North – and at the public services upon which people in those seats depend? Will he push through all of the above even though that would almost certainly mean a real breach in the government’s fiscal rules? Is he prepared to raise taxes to pay for it all?
And all of this matters. Because Johnson has promised a realignment in British politics but has not yet demonstrated how he will deliver it. Or whether he ever meant it at all. And whilst it is reasonably easy for dry Tory free marketeers to nod along in theory when their PM promises splurges of cash for trains and buses and nurses and schools, they may struggle with the reality. Particularly if to pay for it people with multi-million pound homes are taxed more. Or fuel duty goes up. The Conservative Parliamentary Party is waiting to see, and to analyse, this first show of detail from this government with as much nervousness and anticipation as everyone else.
Boris Johnson came to power on the back of a cultural movement. He is prime minister because of Brexit – a cause that gathered strange bedfellows to it and which lacks a coherent economic philosophy to which its supporters subscribe. This budget is his first chance to outline what his conservatism means on economic strategy – and the first test of his commitment to championing those in the North and Midlands who voted for Brexit over those on the Tory Right who campaigned for it. Who is Boris for? That is the question.
Which is sad – in a way – for Rishi Sunak. Because no-one is yet really asking any of these questions about him, in the way that they would be were he a normal chancellor. But he is not a normal chancellor. Because this is not a normal government.