Qwasi Kwarteng. What a guy! On Monday he put the fun into the funeral with a few gags at Westminster Abbey. On Friday he puts the fizz into fiscal with an event – we would call it a budget were it not for the chancellor having gone out of his way to make sure the Office for Budget Responsibility couldn’t supply any figures to fact-check his economics – that was so high and wild we may never see another. To infinity and beyond! A mini-budget that was anything but mini.
Casino faith-based economics on which he’d bet the bank. The biggest tax giveaway – primarily to the rich – in 50 years while increasing government borrowing to record levels. Time was when Labor used to get it in the neck for uncosted public borrowing. That’s now so last month.
All you have to do now is believe and everything will be OK. It’s the new economics for Brexit Britain. You want growth, you get growth. And if you don’t, then it will be everyone else’s fault for talking Britain down. The country has just been turned into a laboratory experiment for a plan dreamed up by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs. Kwarteng does believe. Primarily in himself. His self-confidence is remarkable for a man of relatively ordinary talents. Someone who had always gotten by with a few glib words. Who could talk the talk but had never been asked to walk the walk. Now was his time to put up. To throw the country on the sacrificial altar and keep his fingers crossed he hadn’t blown it. To boldly go where no man had gone before. Primarily because it was so obviously disastrous.
But this is the brave new world of Trussonomics. It’s like turning on all the taps at once and being surprised when you flood the house.
The Commons was still packed but this was no normal budget statement. There were no flourishes, no long buildup of how brilliant the government had been. And no loud cheering from the Tory benches. Most MPs look sick. Apprehensive even. Unsure of how they were going to sell this latest Tory iteration to their constituents. Half of the personal tax cuts going to the richest 5% might not be quite the policy to win the hearts and minds of “red wall” voters.
Kwarteng got straight to business. So much to announce, so little time to do it. Tax was too high! Growth was too low! The government had let the economy stagnate. He wasn’t sure what the government had been in the past 12 years, but he and Librium Liz had definitely played no part in it. Which was odd, as most of us could remember them both having been cabinet ministers who had voted for measures they were now trashing. And who had several times made a point of highlighting the dangers of government debt.
Like Truss, Kwasi is a tabula rasa. Free to reinvent himself, unmoored to the past. “We are at the beginning of a new era,” he said. Weirdly, he even sounded as if he believed it. Those people really are ready to forgive and forget. To consider this government as Year Zero rather than the continuation of the several failed ones that preceded it. No one else in the chamber seems to share this view. Some Tories had the grace to look embarrassed. Librium Liz just looked blank. Then she often does. Maybe she too couldn’t quite accept she was getting away with it.
The chancellor moved on to the remedies. First up was loads more borrowing. He couldn’t say how much. And it would be rude to ask. Then there is deregulation. It must be easier to treat workers worse. After all, if people weren’t earning enough it was entirely their own fault for not having a better-paid job. And what about the poor bankers? They hadn’t been able to afford their second homes while their bonuses had been capped. Time to free the Goldman Sachs elite.
Then Kwarteng got on to tax. There was far too much of it. If he had his way no one would be paying a penny. It would be up to everyone to either sink or swim. There were far too many people idling around, relying on schools and the NHS. But he couldn’t bring himself to cut taxes completely. So he was just going to do so for the most well off. Because that was obviously the fair thing to do.
This was a budget devoid of moral purpose. Even Boris Johnson hadn’t sunk this low. It’s come to something when Kwarteng now finds himself lower on the ethical balance sheet to The Convict. Although it’s all of a piece. Every time you think the government couldn’t possibly sink any lower it finds new, creative ways of doing so.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves put in a decent reply – her highlight was chucking the six previous failed Tory growth plans across the dispatch box and asking why the new one should be any better – but she lacked a bit of edge. Almost as if her whole speech had been pre-written and she wasn’t able to grasp just how reckless the Tories were being. A little more ad-libbing wouldn’t have gone amiss.
For the Tories, only John Redwood and Richard Drax were wholly enthusiastic. This was all their wet dreams come at once. Others, such as Mel Stride and John Glen, were openly skeptical. Of Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, there was no sign. They are now non-people. Long before the end, every Tory MP had melted away and Kwarteng was left to take questions from opposition backbenchers.
The chancellor looked increasingly lost and lonely. His self-confidence had definitely taken a hit over the past two and a half hours. Not least because the markets had responded to his mini-budget with a resounding thumbs down. Not even Kwasi could fully convince himself now that he knew something no other financial analyst did. Though give him a day or so…