The chancellor has made an impressive start to the hard part of his job. Having won unusual popularity for having given vast amounts of borrowed money away, he managed to come across sympathetically today as he started to turn the cash tap off.
He announced a step-by-step reduction in government support for the furlough scheme, month by month until the end of October, but crucially the scheme will be more generous than most observers expected. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, said Rishi Sunak “continues to be generous” with the scheme. The chancellor also announced a last-minute reprieve for the self-employed, whose support was going to run out today. Those eligible will be able to claim a further, final grant of up to £6,570, he announced.
He will not be able to keep this up. As the furlough and self-employed schemes unwind, unemployment will rise, and there will be sharp political disagreement over the timing and scale of the government’s withdrawal from the private-sector jobs market.
But the chancellor starts from a better position than would have seemed possible, with the support of the Trades Union Congress and with Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow chancellor, cautiously welcoming today’s announcement.
He braced himself for the next phase, saying: “There will be hardship ahead for many and that rests heavily on my shoulders.” At least he starts with goodwill from public opinion, which means that he is better placed than the prime minister, who has spent the past week setting fire to the huge fund of support granted to him by the electorate at the start of this crisis.
That set up the dramatic tension of today’s daily news conference, with Sunak determined to present himself as the good cop to the bad cop recently played by Boris Johnson. The chancellor tried rather unwisely to go for a bit of oratory, talking about “work clothes and school uniforms” being “pulled out of the wardrobe” as “shops and factories start to hum with activity”, but when he went off script in answer to questions, he reverted to his more natural style of the business jargon of a sales manager: “We have a range of loan products available which have proved successful,” he told the BBC’s Faisal Islam.
Sunak chose to compete more successfully with the prime minister by being unflappably patient and polite. Where Johnson has been tetchy, restless and curt in recent news conferences, muting journalists who wanted to ask supplementary questions, the chancellor could not have been more gracious. “Anything you want to add?” he asked, repeatedly. “Can I come back on that?” asked Andy Bell of Channel 5. “Of course,” replied Sunak.
When Anna Mikhailova of The Daily Telegraph asked if the two-metre distancing rule might be relaxed in order to make life easier for businesses, Sunak said: “I agree with the prime minister ... I always agree with the prime minister.” But the contrast between the two styles could not have been more pointed.
Johnson’s opinion-poll rating has slipped badly during the Dominic Cummings furore, and the prime minister seems to have reacted by becoming sulky and defiant. Sunak’s rating has suffered collateral damage along with the rest of the government, but he is still its most popular minister, and he has reacted by redoubling the charm and emollience.
He is going to need all his “good cop” skills over the next few months as unemployment rises and the nation’s economic troubles mount.