The cuts will still be terrible, but not as terrible as they could have been. Rejoice! Celebrate St Jeremy, the patron saint of expectation management
First, roll the pitch. For the last few weeks Jeremy Hunt has been going out of his way to explain just how screwed the economy really is. That he is going to have to do some desperately unpleasant things to stabilise the situation. Things so unpleasant he doesn’t really want to mention them. But he’s such a decent guy – “fall into my eyes and surrender to my embrace” – that he’s going to tell us anyway. Because we deserve to know the truth.
It’s not us. It’s not even him. It’s just life. The war. Things are just too, too bloody. Bloody bloody. So he’s going to ask us all to make sacrifices. Some may even have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Not all of us are going to get through this. The elderly may die of starvation in their unheated homes.
But know this. Their deaths will not have been in vain. They will have died so that others of us might live. Which is why Hunt is now asking for massive tax rises and spending cuts. Measures that will make us all worse off. But spiritually much revived.
The idea has been to fill us with terror. The horror, the horror! So much so that by the time the chancellor actually gets round to delivering his autumn statement on Thursday none of us counts on anything more than flatlining on life support. Then Jezza can surprise us with his warm bedside manner.
We have all done so well, he will say, that things aren’t quite so bad as he feared. So some of the more punitive measures can now be reduced. The cuts won’t go quite as deep. It will still be terrible. But not as terrible as it could have been. Rejoice! Celebrate our Saviour! St Jeremy, the patron saint of expectation management.
And it all looks like it’s going to plan. Because Hunt survived Treasury questions almost unscathed. He said things were going to be bad. But he said it so mildly, so politely, so plausibly that no one really wanted to get that angry with him.
There was no need. No point in Labour wasting energy before the chancellor had actually made his announcement. Everyone had already planned for the worst. No one even thought to mention the impact of Brexit on the economy. It’s a no-go zone for all parties these days. Don’t mention the war!
Almost all the Tories – apart from Edward Leigh, who sounded a lone lament for middle England: would no one think of the pain of higher rate taxpayers? – had come to praise the chancellor.
Backbencher James Grundy set the tone by asking Jezza to remind everyone how much he had saved people with his energy price cap. “Seven hundred pounds,” said Hunt, coyly. Lowering his head and fluttering his eyes. He could have been auditioning as Elizabeth Debicki’s understudy in The Crown.
“Gosh, thank you, thank you,” said Grundy. “We are not worthy of your brilliance.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that everyone was still going to be broke even with the handout. And that they would be even more broke when the price cap was raised in April next year. No. It was our solemn duty to celebrate the £700 that we had been given. Even if it wasn’t enough to keep us warm. To do otherwise would be to talk the country down.
Labour’s Toby Perkins wanted to know what the government was planning to do for all those who would no longer be able to buy a home or afford their current mortgages. The junior Treasury minister Andrew Griffith took his cue from Hunt and shook his head.
That was the wrong question, he insisted. What we should be talking about was the large number of people in employment on the minimum wage. No point in paying workers any more than strictly necessary. And these people would be able to save up for a deposit in 360 years. Awesome.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves made life rather more awkward for her counterpart. She observed that the NHS was on the verge of collapse and average wages were down £1K in real terms from last year. So where did Jezza think the OECD projected the UK to be next year in terms of growth? Clue: there were 38 countries in the league table. Clue: don’t worry about numbers 1-37.
Hunt was beside himself. This really wasn’t fair. It wasn’t the Tories who had wrecked the economy. Or rather it was. But you should ignore everything Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng had done because he had tried to undo it. At a cost to the UK of £30bn. Though for some reason he forgot to say that.
Still, Jezza has never been that great with numbers. In any case he had his own tables. According to the Narnia Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK was outperforming the entire world. Yup … that sounds about right.
Also preparing the ground was Rishi Sunak, away in Bali. He too was trying to sound downbeat about the economy while giving the impression he knew how to fix it. Give it some long, hard stares – much like his Paddington Bear impression when Sergei Lavrov had been speaking at the G20 – and hope it behaved itself.
Mostly though Rish! wanted it on record that none of this was his fault. And he certainly wasn’t going to apologise for anything. Mistakes might have been made. But none worth saying sorry for. There was going to be hell to pay when he discovered which party had been in government for the last 12 years. Sunakered.
Back in the Commons, junior housing minister Lucy Frazer was left with the thankless task of defending Truss and Kamikwasi’s right to pocket severance pay for tanking the economy.
She sounded increasingly brittle as she tried to convince herself that their mini-budget, which she had supported, had basically been a practical joke. There had been no real harm done. So Labour shouldn’t be making such a fuss about things. If anyone was to blame for the mess, it was Labour. Why? Oh, just because. Frazer crashed and burned. Much like the rest of the UK.
A year in Westminster with John Crace, Marina Hyde and Armando Iannucci
Join John Crace, Marina Hyde and Armando Iannucci for a look back at another chaotic year in Westminster, live at Kings Place in London, or via the livestream.
Wednesday 7 December 2022, 7pm-8.15pm GMT. Book tickets here.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort