The Chancellor’s Budget statement reinforced his party’s image as masters of reinvention

It is difficult to imagine a more extraordinary set of circumstances for a Chancellor's delivery of the Government’s Budget.

Has the new Chancellor stolen Labour's clothes? asks Oliver Foster
Has the new Chancellor stolen Labour's clothes? asks Oliver Foster

A new Chancellor, only weeks into the job, facing a global public health and economic crisis of profound proportions.

This Budget was a baptism of fire for Rishi Sunak, to put it lightly, and in the space of two hours he underlined why the Conservative Party has been in power for more of the past 50 years than any other party: its leaders excel in reinvention in order to survive as a political force.

The Chancellor would have hoped that the coronavirus emergency would not totally eclipse his first Budget, and he would, at the very least, get a fair shot at demonstrating how the Government is committed to “levelling up” the UK.

Pre-Budget, this was not looking likely.

Health Minister Nadine Dorries was diagnosed with the illness on the eve of the fiscal announcement, followed by the Bank of England’s decision (albeit coordinated with HM Treasury) to make an emergency cut in interest rates the morning of; and so the odds were not in the Chancellor’s favour.

This was a huge personal test for Sunak.

The Budget was a vital opportunity to impress colleagues and reassure the public, make his mark on No. 11 and step out of the shadow left by Sajid Javid and the controversy surrounding his resignation.

It's fair to say he achieved all that – and then some.

Inevitably (and rightly so), much of the Budget statement was dedicated to the Government’s response to handling the coronavirus outbreak – with a focus on helping vulnerable people and small businesses.

In normal circumstances, he would be written about as profligate and irresponsible with the public finances, hiking borrowing up to levels that were – until quite recently – mocked by his own party.

But, in these extraordinary times, Sunak immediately struck the right tone: calm but not complacent.

He acknowledged the challenge the country faces, while carefully explaining that the economic impact will be temporary, a point which the Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, reinforced earlier in the day.

Perhaps concerned about speculation as to how much influence figures in No. 10 had on the Budget preparations, the Chancellor sought to put himself front and centre of this statement.

He repeatedly told the house “I am prepared to go further”; “I will provide"; “I will review”; and “I am investing”.

It paid off. This felt very much like Sunak's Budget and he sat down to pats on the back from the Prime Minister and acclaim from across the Westminster Twittersphere.

All in all, a thoroughly convincing performance from a Chancellor who has found his feet quickly, and one which will have reassured the markets – as well as voters who need to know the Government is firmly in control.

Much will be written about how very un-Conservative this Budget was – so much so that, deep down, Labour will have found it really difficult to oppose much of what he announced.

And if the latest opinion poll, published this morning, is anything to go by, voters so far like what they see from this Government – the Conservatives have hit 50 per cent against Labour’s 29 per cent.

Oliver Foster is chief executive of Pagefield

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