Not So Sunny Sunak

I thought I’d wait to see what the Chancellor had to say before I blogged today but I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t bothered. There’s really not that much to say…

I’m sure some of his measures will do what they are intended to do but so much of it works at the macroeconomic level. It’s also likely the VAT cuts won’t be passed onto customers. They rarely are.

I admit I’m being selfish. Some government help would have been extremely welcome at this point – not so much for me but for people I know who have suffered. Yet I always thought the voucher idea seemed unwieldy. How would they print them? Would it be credit-card based? What about the infrastructure behind that? How would they prevent people from using them online? The more I thought about it, the less likely it sounded.

That didn’t mean, however, that I thought Rishi Sunak would do next to nothing. Recently, the chancellor has tended to under-promise and over-deliver (for example, the way the furlough scheme tapers off was far more generous than leaks had suggested). I thought Johnson might be tempted to make some amends for the absolute mess he’s made of the pandemic with some populist gimmick. That’s why I’d hoped Sunak might do something closer to a £500-in-the-pocket scheme; something that’s happened in countries where they sent checks to every citizen to be spent however they wished. Given the rumours and international comparisons, a meal voucher scheme is very underwhelming. We’re getting – if I understand this correctly – half-price meals (in participating bars, cafes, and restaurants) between Monday and Wednesday for the month of August up to £10 per person per meal…

And, yes. I know I was hoping for too much…

For me, the key detail was in the throwaway line: “If we all follow the guidance and respect what they ask us to do, we can all enjoy summer safely.”

Which raises three questions:

“If” – I’d be a lot more confident going out if I knew I wasn’t going to be surrounded by arseholes who don’t believe that the coronavirus is real. I hear enough horror stories. Not two minutes ago, I read on Twitter of some young guy complaining that he’d been called a ‘twat’ for wearing a mask in a shop. It sounds pleasant out there…

“Enjoy” – If I did intend to head out to enjoy myself, I’d have to have a good reason. A half-price meal voucher really isn’t going to cut it. Given that I rarely spend more than £5 on a meal when I do go out, I’m not sure a £2.50 saving is enough to get me into to my favourite but dingy and very cramped coffee shop. It also sounds like a gimmick rather a serious attempt to revitalise the economy. Admittedly, the government is facing two realities: a shrinking economy that will produce less tax revenue and a nation that will need more government help. The £1000 offered to employers to retain jobs between now and January seems generous until you realise how much the government would be spending to help those people should they become unemployed.

“summer” – That, to me, was the keyword. It’s not clear how good a picture the government has of the current outbreak, whilst they have no certainty about what happens in September and October. In the US, the Trump administration has shifted to a “we have to live with it” policy, but that is entirely political. Certainly, the economic arguments are important, but the US policy seems largely directed towards the November election. Trump is at his most Cnut-like: trying to deny the arrival of the tide. He needs to be able to boast about the economy because that remains his strongest card – incumbent presidents always take credit for a strong market, though this one did start under Obama, and never want to take the blame for when the market tanks. Texas had 10,000 new cases yesterday but they’re still only talking about 1-2% of people in each state being infected. It’s scary to think of how much more potential damage the virus can do in a society that’s currently fighting their own culture war over the science of wearing a mask.

So, yes, a not particularly uplifting announcement. I’m still struggling with my mood and what the hell I should be doing with my time (I enjoy drawing cartoons but I increasingly feel there’s no point, writing books feels… meh… I’d like to but…) Perhaps I was hoping for something that would lift my spirits but today felt like a stop-gap measure; a government trying to get the country to enjoy the summer, not knowing what the hell is coming along for the rest of the year. Rather than fill me with optimism, it has made me feel a lot more sombre about the coming months.

12 thoughts on “Not So Sunny Sunak”

  1. I nearly added to my comment on Blaster Bates yesterday with a bit about vouchers, but such are the times we live in that I deleted it for fear of ending up with oodles of egg on my face if the scheme went ahead.

    What I deleted amounted to this. I didn’t believe the chancellor was about to piss 30 billion pounds of public money up the wall in such a ridiculous manner, it is 20% of the NHS budget and more than the entire transport budget. It would comfortably pay to put half a million youngsters into employment for several years. Like all spending splurges it would have provided a short term boost, eventually though it would have to be paid for, and the cost to each person would end up being considerably more than 500 pounds. Thankfully, I was right in not believing it. You get don’t get owt for nowt in this world.

    The £1000 for each retained employee is a clever way of government handing large sums of money to business without attracting criticism as they can claim the noble aim of saving jobs. In reality the employees brought back would always have been brought back, the ones made redundant always made redundant. The financials don’t work for businesses in terms of an incentive to keep staff on as they will still make a loss from retention and we will see a lot of redundancies between now and Christmas. Still it will amount to several billion pounds of taxpayer money handed over to businesses for doing something they were going to do anyway. I would rather have seen interest free loans used and targeted measures to reduce fixed costs for business.

    Hardly anyone out there is wearing a mask, not customers, not staff. I do wear one, it is basic courtesy if nothing else and I think they should be mandatory in public. Let’s face though, the police have completely lost control of public behaviour so the chances of enforcing it are nil, which may well be why it hasn’t happened.

    1. Yes, beyond my own selfishness (which I’ll happy own), I just couldn’t see it happening. In fairness to them, it didn’t make much sense until they have a proper sense of where the economy will be in the coming months. Pointless injecting that cash when we perhaps face months of local or even national lockdowns and, like you say, much of the damage is inevitable. That said: I don’t understand why they allowed the story to circulate for a week without some pushback. Wouldn’t be surprised if we learned that it was on the table until recent days. I saw a story somewhere saying he was facing criticism from inside the party. Unlike the US, we still have some fiscal conservatives in government.

      I’m no economist so I might simply not understand how the cut on stamp duty on houses up to half a million really help people beneath the middle class. Politically, though, the optics aren’t great given we also hear today that NHS staff will be expected to pay to park at hospitals and that absolutely nothing has been done to help the less well off through this crisis.

      Masks: they have to be mandatory and pointless if they’re not, but this government seems to be making a bugger of everything they touch. Their attitude does indeed seem to be “enjoy summer” and then they’ll face the autumn. We should be putting measures in place now yet everything feels like it’s directed to normality it September. I keep seeing articles titled “why a mask will protect you” which is simply the wrong message. If they can’t get this right — “wear a mask to protect others” — then I have little hope they’ll get schools sorted ahead of the flu season.

      1. I think the idea on stamp duty is that the money trickles down as buyers have more money available to spend on new furnishings and getting the trades in to do work for them, they then have more money to spend and so on. I’ve always thought a fair proportion of the saving makes it way into increased pricing.

        Yes the NHS parking is a disgrace, especially given the rhetoric about NHS heroes. I would expect yet another U-turn over this, at least until next year when it will get buried amongst the other bad news. All hospital parking should be free, it’s a perverse society that penalises those who are ill and those who look after them.

        1. Ah, yes. The old “trick-down economics” in which people forget what the word “trickle” actually means. Odd how governments never seem as attracted to “trickle-up economics”…

          NHS: exactly. Highlights the hypocrisy that some of us have been shouting about for months. They care no more about the NHS than they really care about the armed forces, which we haven’t needed for a few years so nobody gets too irate when Cummings starts to tour defence establishments with an eye, no doubt, to “restructuring”. Can’t help feel that it’s madness having a former blogger who worked in Russia for a few years now at the heart of government making these hugely impactful decisions… Johnson is clearly PM in name only.

          1. I find myself torn on Cummings as it is impossible to make an informed decision on him given everything I know about him has been supplied by his enemies. The referendum campaign caused a huge target to be put on his back, his influence with the PM enlarged it and the announcement of a drive to reform the civil service has made it of epic proportions.

            I’m not a fan of special advisors becoming de facto prime ministers which seems to be becoming the norm. Nick Timothy fulfilled that role with Theresa May and I’ve got no doubt that Seamus Milne would have been in a similar position had Corbyn been elected. Having said that some would argue that this is exactly what Cabinet Secretaries have been doing for decades.

            Which brings me onto civil service reform. It is 50 years overdue, but we are seeing yet again why it has either not been attempted or has failed when someone has been brave enough to tackle it. Leaks after leaks after leaks backed up by deliberate obstruction in implementing government policy. The civil service is like a group of footballers who decide amongst themselves who plays in the team, what position they play in as well as formation and style. If a manager comes in and give instructions not to their liking or drops one of the key players they simply put in crap performances on the pitch until he gets sacked.

            In a sensible world civil service reform should have cross party backing, giving that endless procurement and implementation failures have seen the back of Labour and Tory ministers in equal measure. Party politics alas means we never move forward and the permanent secretaries laugh all the way to their knighthoods and gold plated pensions.

          2. I’m prone to writing long boring blog posts but I’m saint compared with Cummings, who I find unreadable. But that’s not really the point. Yes, all Spads have a tendency to inflate their importance but Cummings feels like he’s taken that to a new level. Combined with Johnson’s notorious laziness, Cummings’ ambition feels rather scary.

            I think you’re right about the civil service but I hesitate because I realise your argument exposes my own hypocrisy. There’s a big part of me that’s reactionary and hates change, yet another part of me that’s progressive and wants us to improve. Perhaps it’s more of a fiction that real but the civil service has always been portrayed as a cornerstone of government: the cement that holds all the slightly sub-quality bricks together. It functions even if the government doesn’t function but, as you say, that also means its flaws are institutionalised. If there’s such as thing as “The Establishment”, it’s the civil service rather than the government.

            The only problem of reforming them is that we get rid of the Sir Humphrey / Minister dynamic which, again, real or not, felt like some kind of check and balance. The idea of government being completely taken over by the party in power does worry me a little. Much as the US system is flawed (and Trump is showing that) their three branches of government fighting each other feels like an impediment to one branch going completely loopy.

  2. I will not claim to understand the economics of it all. On a personal note when i read about the £500 i started in my head looking at things in my house that i have put off replacing due to lack of funds.

    I was also thinking could you just walk into Wilkinson and buy £500 of amazon gift cards. So maybe it wasn’t the best economic answer but it was nice to think about it for a day or so.

    1. Ha, yes. Hadn’t thought of the Amazon gift card option but I guess it was another possibility.

      The half-price food vouchers look a bit pathetic given Canada and the US gave people stimulus cheques worth more than £1000 (though I can’t recall if the US didn’t have more than one). Certainly, both countries were a lot more generous than ours. I guess it could have stimulated the high street except too many would go spend it on a next-gen console in November. Which, on the one hand, is exactly how free markets are meant to work, but perhaps wouldn’t sit well with backbench Tory MPs who get sniffy about the free market when they don’t approve of what we do with it.

      Myself: I desperately need a new PC and it would have gone a long way towards paying for that. Bit gutted, if I’m honest. 😉

  3. Checks and balances absolutely, but not by unelected officials. I’ve thought we needed constitutional reform for a long time, the events of last year convinced me utterly. We had a zombie government for 11 months, but our unelected head of state lacked the constitutional power to dissolve parliament. We had a speaker who was making up the rules as he went along as the only thing that bound him was “convention”. Convention is not the same as clear explicit rules and is open to abuse.

    I think we need an elected head of state with powers to dissolve parliament when it ceases to function. I think we need a wholly elected upper chamber, chosen by PR, with the power to block non mandated legislation only. To be clear, if a policy was in the manifesto a party was elected on, the parliament act would apply and could be used to force it through. However if not explicitly put before the electorate in a manifesto, a policy could be blocked for the duration, the parliament act could not be used to force through surprise policies. I also think it is time for a written constitution, horrendous minefield though that would be.

    You might find this interesting (or not) on different nations fiscal response to the Covid-19.
    https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/imf-and-covid19/Policy-Responses-to-COVID-19#C

    1. Ah, a very useful link. Cheers.

      Yes, I like so many of those suggestions but it also reminds me how quickly these reforms spiral (and why I think most of them highly unlikely). Something as dumb as Black Rod hammering on the door to the Commons has become such a part of our tradition that it’s hard to imagine a context where we lose it and that’s just one of so many traditions. Myself, I think we need a new purpose-built chamber but, of course, the architects would be guided by the kind of parliament we’d want. Do they design as a circle or oppositional? Even that has a bearing on our elections etc. etc.

      Our system has been constructed organically over such a long time that I don’t see how we fix it. No one person has (or is likely to have) that mandate, just like no PM wants their legacy defined by their agreeing to pay for the restoration of Westminster. Your changes would amount to a complete change to the way we do politics in this country. I agree that we’d be better for them. Just can’t see how they realistically happen beyond the Palace of Westminster burning down, though, I should add, I don’t think too unlikely. I still believe we’ll be watching it burn one night on the news, with all the pundits tearing up and asking questions why it was allowed to happen when everybody has been complaining about the dangerous wiring for years… Maybe — just maybe — it will take something that catastrophic to sort it out.

      1. Oh I agree, pie in the sky. Change is always difficult to bring about in any arena because the status quo suits so many people. If there ever was a chance of reform it was with Blairs huge majority, but then why would he want to change something that delivered him the next best thing to absolute power, he didn’t and hence he didn’t. There is zero interest from the public too, so no impetus at all. Agree on Westminster, accident waiting to happen, the cost of the refurb is staggering and will end up doubling as the work proceeds, it is a terrible waste of money. I realise the building is iconic but it is a relatively new building in the scope of our history.

        More pie in the sky for you, I would, shock horror, move parliament out of London, perhaps even hold it on multiple sites across the region, a bit like the monarchs of old. Imagine the support) for that from MP’s, civil servants and London based hacks (sarcastic grin).

        1. I’d quite enjoy seeing parliament moving around, yet I also know it would too problematic once special interest groups got involved, demanding a parliament in every city. Not to bring up the ‘B’ word but one of the glaring errors of the EU and the Remain argument, was the two parliaments and the 100 million Euros they blow each year moving between the two. I’ve never entirely liked the idea of devolved governments since we seem to be (at least) trippling the bureaucracy within a relatively small nation (a +ve in my eyes with some aspects of the EU). However, when I think of it as decentralisation, I somehow feel better about it. Like we were talking about regional accents the other day, some aspects of our country do lend themselves to a more nuanced form of government…

          And yet… There’s always an “and yet” because I have such conflicting emotions about these issues… There comes a point where we’re significantly reduced by all of this. We destroy the Union, civil service is no more, no centralised control in London, regions take more control, change the voting system so we coalitions in perpituity, and eventually we’re left with a really nominal sense of the nation. I think this is the very difficult balancing act that Brexit unlocked. The beauty of the organic system of government we have is that, like the Union itself, it generally worked. We’d eventually find a new equilibrium but there’s nothing to say that it will be quantifiably better.

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It’s a cool domain name and it was available. Yes, I know. Available. Crazy, isn’t it?

Really?

Yes. It also helps that it’s also my favourite satire written by Alexander Pope, one of the most metrically pure English poets who also knew his way around a crude insult or two. If you’ve not read it, you should give it a try.

So this is satire, right?

Can’t deny it. There will be some. But it’s also an experiment in writing and drawing, giving work away for free in order to see how many people are willing to support a writer doing his thing. It’s the weird stuff that I wouldn’t get published elsewhere in this word of diminishing demands and cookie-cutter tastes.