Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a visit to Leeds Station to highlight the record infrastructure spend announced in his March 11 Budget. (Photo: WPA/Getty Images)
Eastern Eye Staff
RISHI SUNAK’S Budget delivery seems to have hoisted his “PM-in-waiting” tag, with analysts hinting that he could emerge as Boris Johnson’s successor.
The chancellor—who had made a “surprise entry” into No 11, after Sajid Javid quit to preserve his “self-respect”—displayed grace under fire as he had hardly a month to “rewrite” the Budget, and handle the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reports noted that he “even found room for populist moves, including freezing both alcohol and fuel duty”, in a budget that promised a “historic” £600 billion infrastructure boost for post-Brexit Britain.
Among the first to shower praise on Sunak was his former boss. “He had only four weeks to write this Budget and he has risen to the challenge,” said Javid.
He added that Sunak was “absolutely right to focus his attention on the threat posed by the coronavirus”.
“There has been a dramatic change, as he set out, in the global economy, and this means we have to, of course, face these challenges as a nation,” said Javid, who had resigned when he was told to sack his aides last month.
As Sunak, 39, took over, doubts were cast on whether he would be able to meet the March 11 Budget date. Especially since he was expected to “rewrite” Javid’s fiscal agenda, and unleash funding.
Then spiralled out the coronavirus pandemic, which upset the world’s financial applecart.
Sunak, however, made a “bright and breezy” Budget presentation, with primary focus on a £30-billion fiscal stimulus to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.
“Let me say this: We will get through this—together,” he said. “The British people may be worried, but they are not daunted. We will protect our country and our people. We will rise to this challenge.”
The chancellor said the NHS will get “whatever extra resources” it needed to cope with COVID-19, and pledged an “emergency fund” of £5 billion.
“So, whether it’s research for a vaccine, recruiting thousands of returning staff, or supporting our brilliant doctors and nurses,” said Sunak.
“Whether its millions of pounds or billions of pounds… whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS.”
He also promised financial assistance for “businesses with fewer than 250 employees”.
He said: “I have decided that the cost of providing statutory sick pay to any employee off work due to coronavirus… will, for up to 14 days, be met by the government in full. That could provide over £2bn for up to 2 million businesses.”
Sunak also announced that “nearly half of all businesses will not pay business rates for the next 12 months”, considering the “temporary disruption to our economy”.
“Any eligible retail, leisure or hospitality business worth below £51m will pay no business rates whatsoever,” he said.
“The tax cut will be worth £1bn pounds and each business will save up to £25,000.”
Fellow MP Andy Carter said: “Great Budget from Chancellor Rishi Sunak gettting the balance right, levelling up and protecting our country from the coronavirus threat.
“Very pleased to hear big steps to support small business sector.”
Former prime minister Theresa May said Sunak had pulled off a “difficult” Budget.
Writing for the Mail, Simon Walters noted: “Indeed, a less secure politician than Johnson might have thought Sunak had done a little too well. By the time he sat down to rousing Tory cheers, Johnson must have been thinking what I and many Tory MPs were thinking: Is Sunak his successor?”
Usually a smiling, energetic performer, Sunak was grave as he appealed for cross-party unity to tackle the epidemic and its fallout.
That was in contrast to the triumphant tone of most recent budgets delivered by the Conservatives.
While Tory MPs kept their cheering muted, and the chancellor largely resisted the temptation to litter his speech with rhetoric and jokes at the expense of the Labour Party.
“This house (parliament) has always stood ready to come together, put aside party politics and act in the national interest,” he said. “We have done so before. And I know we will do so again.”
Wrote Isabel Hardman for the Spectator: “Rishi Sunak has only been Chancellor for a few weeks, yet he offered a statement to the Commons that was impressive on its own terms, not merely as a debut.
“It was forceful and passionate, and disciplined in its political messaging. This is no mean feat given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“In one speech, Sunak managed to make a better pitch to be a future Prime Minister than [Jeremy] Corbyn has in the past five years.”
Born in England to Indian parents—a doctor and a pharmacist—Sunak is married to the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murty, an Indian billionaire.
Since being elected to parliament from Yorkshire in 2015, Sunak, called the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’, has risen rapidly through the ranks of the Conservative party, and is seen by senior figures as someone who is highly trusted by Johnson.
A political observer, going by the title FullFactUK, wrote on the ConsrvativeHome website: “This was the best Budget I have ever seen delivered (and I have seen a few). Flawless, well articulated, passionate, authoritative, substantial, targeted and sophisticated. For once we didn’t just get the economics right, we got the politics right too.
“I knew very little about Sunak prior to his appointment. I now consider him probably the strongest performer in the Cabinet. I also now suspect his appointment was not an accident.”