I suspect that even Rishi Sunak is struggling to keep up. He is the chancellor with the budget box of many colours. At a rough count there have been at least eight different statements to announce new furlough measures since March, even if only five have ever been fully implemented. Three job support schemes in his winter economy plan have flatlined and been scrapped even before they were due to be introduced. It’s hard to know if he even agrees with himself any more and hasn’t just been bullied into the changes by the prime minister.
With this rate of attrition, it’s becoming increasingly hard to know which government measures to take seriously and which to ignore. On Thursday morning the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, blamed the public’s failure to comply with restrictions as the prime reason for the second national lockdown. It didn’t appear to have occurred to him that many people might have thought the government was just having another of its funny turns and would have reversed the lockdown by the time so many had got round to breaking it.
Back in September, the chancellor had been absolutely clear as he ended the first – or maybe the second (my memory is as poor as his) – bailout scheme. “I don’t think it is the right thing to do to endlessly extend furlough,” he had announced to solemn nods of agreement from Boris Johnson and Conservative backbenchers in the Commons. And yet here he was, back in the chamber, to declare that he hadn’t really meant what he had said about all those variations on reducing payments to those whose businesses and livelihoods had been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and that he was going back to plan A. Or possibly plan B.
As from now, all furlough payments would be reinstated, though not to those he had either deliberately or accidentally previously excluded, until March next year, presumably to prevent him from having to come up with another bailout package after yet more lockdowns or for all those job losses as the result of the government’s failure to agree a Brexit deal. If those negotiations break down, then half the country could be on furlough.
Sunak’s changes to job protection schemes
In previous appearances at the dispatch box, Sunak has appeared urbane and in command. The man riding to the rescue with suitcases full of cash. The Del Monte man who liked to say “yes”. Even when he was offering less than before. Now though, the chancellor appeared edgy. Brittle even. As if aware he was rapidly using up all his goodwill and there was only a certain number of times you could claim to be “financially agile” and “reacting to fast-moving events” before the country began to wonder if you were actually a bit clueless and making it up as you went along. After all, the new plan looked much the same as the first plan. Knocked up on the back of the same cigarette packet, and in the time wasted with his indecision hundreds of thousands might have already lost their job.
The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, was in no mood to take any prisoners. She simply stated the obvious. That Sage had predicted a second wave of infections and that another lockdown was an inevitability, so why had he previously tried to cap the government support at 67% to the many millions who were likely to find themselves off work?
It was hard enough to get by on the minimum wage as it was, and 67% of the minimum wage was hardly going to make ends meet. Sunak kept his head down and said little. Unlike Boris, he has the emotional intelligence not to try to bluster his way out of awkward situations. He knows when he’s busted.
The rest of the session divided along predictable lines. Northern Labour MPs wondered why 67% had been OK for regions in tier 3, but 80% was now on offer when the rest of the country was affected. Welsh MPs observed that the need for a lockdown had been so clear the country had already been in one for the last two weeks, and the Scots sensed the scheme may not turn out to be all that it seemed. They may yet be right.
The Tories forgot they had congratulated the chancellor for his previous schemes and pretended this was the first time they had ever heard of a furlough. It took Peter Bone to ask the one awkward question. Great bailout and all that, but how was he going to pay for it. Sunak shrugged.
Boris, meanwhile, is acting more and more like a C-list celebrity on a Channel 5 reality TV show. Ready to endure any humiliation as long as there’s a TV camera to record it. You might have thought that for the Downing Street press conference we might get a double dose of Rishi to explain all over again while he still had star quality, albeit a bit tarnished. Instead we got Boris saying precisely nothing, other than to insist again that the NHS had begged him to delay his lockdown until it was running almost at breaking point.
So folks, Johnson concluded, please just do your best to comply with the rules this time so we won’t need another lockdown again immediately. Boris could have done himself and everyone else a favour and just had a word in private with Dominic Cummings. Most of us don’t need to be told there are Specsaver branches outside Barnard Castle.