Let’s be generous. Rishi Sunak has had a lot on his plate. First he has had to be photographed in his hoodie – so very casual, so very multimillionaire man of the people. Then he has had to be photographed exercising on his Peloton bike. Then he has had to be photographed being photographed. You can’t get too meta in your attention to detail when you’re lining yourself up to be the next leader of the Tory party.
Then there’s the budget. Not the writing of it. That was completed a while ago. It’s been the briefing of it that has been so time-consuming. All those Brand Rishi – the new logo had cost a fortune – emails that had to be sent. Press releases coordinated to be sent out at precise times on different days with different embargos. All to make sure the media were talking about nothing but Rishi and his budget in the seven days leading up to the day of the budget itself. And, astonishingly, all of the news had been good news. He’d looked for some bad stuff to send out – in the interests of balance and all that – but there just hadn’t been any to find. I guess that’s the kind of luck you get when You Are The Man.
On Monday in the Commons, the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, had lost it with the government over all the budget briefing. It was totally out of order for the media to be given inside knowledge of the budget before MPs, he had said. And to make plain just how pissed off he was with the government, he was going out of his way to waste ministerial time by granting four urgent questions.
Only no one seemed to have passed this on to Rishi. He had been too busy in the Treasury being photographed sending off a few more embargoed press releases to be interrupted. So come Tuesday, Hoyle was in full meltdown. What part of “no more leaking the budget” did Sunak not get? All of it, apparently.
The Speaker again let rip. The government wasn’t just being disrespectful to parliament, it was breaking the ministerial code. There was a time when the chancellor would have been expected to resign for one whispered hint to a friendly reporter, but Rishi hadn’t even bothered to cover his trail. Rather he had boldly sent out more than 20 emails to every lobby hack.
So Hoyle was going to grant yet another urgent question – this time to Bridget Phillipson, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury – inviting the chancellor to explain why he appeared to have briefed almost the entire contents of the budget and to give parliament a chance to debate some of it in advance of the speech itself. Only it turned out Sunak was again too busy self-importantly sending off embargoed press releases to make it to the chamber. That or he was just too timid to come to parliament to face Hoyle’s anger. Take your pick.
Either way it was the chief secretary to the Treasury – the not very able but essentially harmless Simon Clarke – who was left to take the flak. “I’m delighted to be here,” he lied. Delighted as in sick to death of being dumped on by his boss. Still, he did his best by continuing to lie through his teeth. Leaking almost every budget detail by a deluge of emails was completely normal, he insisted. Every chancellor before Sunak had done it. Only all their emails had gone straight to spam. And why could there not be a little more positivity for the increase in the “national living wage”?
“Er … ” said Phillipson, momentarily wrongfooted by Clarke’s stupidity. She knew he wasn’t the sharpest of ministers, but she had not counted on him being quite this dim. She regrouped and started again. There was no previous for budget briefing on this level. But perhaps he would like to explain how people on minimum wage would cope with cuts in universal credit and rising energy and food prices? Clarke looked as if he might burst into tears. But people would have more money in their pockets even if it bought less, he said choking on his words. That had to be a good thing, didn’t it? At this show of halfwittedness, even the few Tories in the house started laying in to him.
John Redwood – for probably the first time ever – drew cheers from the Labour benches for calling out the government for its lack of respect for MPs. Fellow Tory Desmond Swayne wondered why, since the government was so keen to share its budget plans, it had kept hidden one about the cost of implementing its Covid Pplan B. “I don’t comment on leaks,” Clarke said helplessly. Apparently unaware that was currently his sole purpose in life. Everyone in the Commons burst out laughing. Not with Clarke, but at him. He might have been given a shit job to do, but he was making Maggie Throup look like a skilled parliamentary performer.
Thereafter it was chaos. The Tories melted away, leaving only three silent backbenchers in the chamber, while Labour just took the piss. This was now the first budget to have fallen apart even before it had been delivered. Clarke looked abjectly towards Hoyle for support, but he was now leading the heckling. “Get it on Sky,” the Speaker yelled, when Clarke refused to give more details on levelling up.
Eventually, Hoyle put an end to Clarke’s embarrassment. Not that Sunak cared. His junior was just collateral damage. What really mattered was that Brand Rishi was still intact. The perma-smile of the man who didn’t even have his colleague’s back, let alone the country’s. But he would get away with it. Because men like him always did. That was the point of privilege. Enough of the media would love his budget and ignore the bits that didn’t add up. Just time for one more selfie before bed.