Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street to address Parliament. Rishi Sunak leaves 11 Downing Street to address Parliament. Photo: Flickr - Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

The Chancellor would like us to forget he is personally responsible for some terrible decisions made during the pandemic, writes Sean Ledwith

Rishi Sunak obviously feels he is the heir apparent to the Tory leadership. Yesterday’s delivery of the budget was accompanied by a slick video from the Treasury featuring the ever so dynamic Chancellor and his team preparing for the big day. The glossy spin was blatantly and gratuitously part of Sunak’s positioning for the top job.

It was more like a US presidential ad than anything else. The Chancellor opened his statement in the Commons with more spin about his desire to be ‘honest’ with the British people. In fact, he is so honest he felt the need to tell us nine times in one speech about his honesty! At least he did not hold back on the scale of the crisis:

The damage coronavirus has done to our economy has been acute. Since March, over 700,000 people have lost their jobs. Our economy has shrunk by 10% – the largest fall in over 300 years. Our borrowing is the highest it has been outside of wartime. It’s going to take this country – and the whole world – a long time to recover from this extraordinary economic situation.

What Sunak predictably failed to mention was that, on at least two occasions over the last traumatic twelve months, decisions made by him personally had disastrous consequences and triggered tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. All his spin about honesty and levelling with the public is grotesque hypocrisy.

He implies the devastation caused by the pandemic is solely the outcome of forces beyond the government’s control. In fact, the gargantuan level of borrowing required – now over £350 billion – is the consequence of the botched response to the crisis by a government of which he is the second most important member.

Eat Out to Spread Out

Last summer, he infamously appeared in restaurants handing out meals to customers as part of the publicity for the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. Without a mask or gloves, the grinning Chancellor was happily passing round plates to unsuspecting members of the public with more concern for his own ambition than their safety.

One report from Warwick University last October suggested the £500 million Treasury-backed scheme to subsidise cheaper food and drink was responsible for a sixth of new cases last summer:

Given the dramatic rise of Covid-19 infections across the UK in recent weeks, the likely changes in consumer behaviour due to higher infection risks and the ensuing economic damage this generates suggests that the EOHO scheme may have indirect economic and public health costs that vastly outstrip its short-term economic benefits.

Deadly Veto

Sunak was also at the heart of the even more disastrous decision by the government last September to ignore Sage’s recommendation of a two-week lockdown to intercept the looming second wave of the virus. Having helped reboot the virus with the ill-judged ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, Sunak was responsible for more deaths by once again prioritising financial considerations over public health ones.

He spoke out against the circuit breaker proposal that even Johnson and Hancock felt was necessary at the time. Sunak claimed it would inflict ‘unnecessary pain and suffering on those in parts of the country where virus prevalence is low. A localised approach is the best option.’

His opposition in the cabinet proved decisive. Belatedly, a second lockdown was brought in but one which left schools open for the weeks leading up to Christmas, allowing the even more transmissible Kent variant to emerge. Sunak’s short-sighted preference for profits over people made him understandably popular with the swivel-eyed, anti-lockdown fanatics in the Tory party but also cost tens of thousands of lives at the start of the year.  

Last month, the number of deaths in the second UK wave overtook those in the first. Sunak’s reckless and selfish misjudgement made the third harder and longer lockdown we are still enduring inevitable. Andrew Hayward from Sage spelled out the calamitous effects of the Chancellor’s veto:  

Well, we can’t turn back the clock, but I think if we had chosen a two-week circuit break at that time we would definitely have saved thousands of lives and we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lockdown will do.

Third time unlucky?

As schools and colleges gear up for reopening next week, Sunak is part of the cabinet that is feasibly now pushing us towards a third wave of the virus at some point this year. Ignoring scientific advice again by rejecting calls for a staggered return, the government is putting all its eggs in the vaccines basket.

Recently, it was revealed that Covid infections are rising in one in five health authorities even before Johnson’s Big Bang reopening gets underway. Sunak’s budget is premised on the UK economy moving irreversibly towards a post-pandemic situation. The ending of furlough and the £20 Universal Credit uplift later in the year are both dependent on it.

If the virus reboots again, however, all his tax and spending plans will be blown off course and an already grim economic picture will look even worse.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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