Sunak is an arsonist posing as a firefighter. It’s Labour’s job to expose the truth

Owen JonesThu, 4 March 2021, 8:00 am

<img src="–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/; alt="<span>Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock
Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

Rishi Sunak is one of the chief architects of Britain’s economic calamity. He is an arsonist posing as a firefighter, not that you would know it from some of the media profiles, which suggested he had more than risen to the occasion. Last year, the BBC released – and, following protests, hastily deleted – a video of the chancellor as Superman; ts offering this year included talking heads complaining that he’s too “lovely” to dig any dirt on.

The charge sheet against Sunak is straightforward – or, at least in a functioning democracy, it should be. A public health crisis is, in turn, an economic crisis. The countries that have most effectively suppressed the virus have tended to be spared the worst economic consequences. That Britain simultaneously has one of the world’s worst death tolls and most severe economic hits is a case study in positive correlation, not coincidence.

This week, Sunak released a gushing video about himself which, this time, was produced by the Treasury rather than the BBC. For some reason, it omitted Eat out to help out – the catchy name given to his flagship “encourage people to congregate in confined indoor spaces when a deadly contagious virus is running amok” policy. Perhaps research suggesting the policy could have caused a sixth of Covid clusters now rests easy on his conscience. It is also Sunak who has refused to raise statutory sick pay – a paltry sum, languishing near the bottom of the table in the industrialised world. An increase would have provided financial security for people to self-isolate, and thus constructed a roadblock against Covid-19’s triumphant march.

Most egregiously of all, it was Sunak who invited lockdown sceptics to No 10 last September and helped persuade a dithering prime minister not to introduce the lockdown which the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was advocating to prevent “catastrophic” consequences. Sunak did so because he feared the impact on the economy. But prioritising economic interest over human life proved fatal for both: the virus surged, the death toll escalated, and Britain had no choice but to belatedly impose some of the most authoritarian restrictions in the world.

In a budget supposedly designed to solve a nightmare deepened by Sunak’s own actions, the man who applauded public-sector workers and then imposed a real-terms pay cut on many of them provided no answers for the NHS and social care. If a political consensus is to emerge from the rubble of this national emergency, surely the need to bolster our health and social services is it: the failure to do so led Richard Sloggett, a former special adviser to health secretary Matt Hancock, to call out an “error”.

While Boris Johnson vowed no return to “austerity”, day-to-day spending was slashed by £4bn. While corporation tax will supposedly be raised to 25% by 2023 (whether this commitment will stick, time will tell) big businesses have been handed an untargeted £25bn tax break in the meantime. While the state puts its arm around British bosses, a cut to universal credit in six months will further strip security away from those already stricken by the crisis. While the Tories raid the rhetoric of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s 2019 manifesto, its substance has been hollowed out: £12bn is offered for a “green industrial revolution”, derisory compared with Labour’s £250bn commitment.

But it would be too easy for the government’s opponents to retreat into a comfort zone of deriding the same old Tories with their same old cuts. Boris Johnson and, more reluctantly, Rishi Sunak voice a willingness to spend in a way their Conservative predecessors did not. The consistent thread that runs through every Tory project, however, is mobilising the resources of the state to provide support and security for private interests. The dividing line, then, is: who should the state exist to provide for?

This is a budget with no solution to an economic model which, for a generation, has produced stagnating living standards for millions. No solution, either, for the crisis in affordable housing that is affecting the under-40s. Indeed, Sunak has made the situation worse, with a stamp-duty holiday that has driven up house prices. While a properly resourced green industrial revolution could resolve the crisis in secure, well-paid jobs, there is nothing substantial on offer here either.

What, then, of the opposition? Keir Starmer’s promise was to maintain the core, radical policies of the Corbyn era, fused with the competence of the “grownups being back in the room”, a united party and electability. A Tory commitment to putting up corporation tax should have been an opportunity for Labour to hammer the government for admitting that slashing taxes on big business does not increase tax revenues, as they have always previously argued. Labour’s case since 2015, meanwhile, has been vindicated. Here was an opportunity for the opposition to force the conversation on to their terrain, calling for commitments to tax justice the Tories can never match. Instead they have spent the past week briefing the media on their opposition to all tax rises and now passively accept a corporation tax increase later in this parliament.

A successful vaccine rollout has incinerated Labour’s existing dividing line – competence – and, without a clear vision, they are left with little to say. Starmer is right to attack Sunak for a decade of Tory cuts, which left Britain exposed to the pandemic. But without a clear articulation of the country Labour seeks to build in the post-Covid “peacetime” to come, a dishonest Tory narrative will prevail. That Sunak is hailed as a saviour, rather than an architect of our current plight, is a travesty for which our media has much responsibility. If Labour cannot puncture it, then a protracted Tory hegemony beckons.

  • Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist