To watch Rishi Sunak being interviewed by Andrew Marr on Sunday was to take a sneak preview into the next looking glass through which we will assuredly pass.
The chancellor was asked, many times, for answers on how the various Brexit options left open to us, which now range from very hard to ultra hard, might affect the economy. In the process of avoiding the question, Sunak’s stock answer was that “the biggest impact on our economy next year won’t be Brexit, it will be coronavirus.”
Sunak played no real role in the EU referendum. Why would he have done? He was an obscure backbencher with a year in parliament under his belt, though he had very much already been been marked out for major things. When he politely declined George Osborne and David Cameron’s invitation to get involved in the Remain campaign, both men regarded it as something of an earthquake. That maybe things were not going to be as straightforward as they imagined.
Back then, all Sunak said on the subject of leaving the EU was that “having the flexibility and the nimbleness to adapt would be of enormous value to us”.
Sunak’s Brexiteer credentials are widely considered to provide some kind of economic ballast to the project. This is chiefly drawn from his having joined the Goldman Sachs grad scheme when he left university, and then spent a few years working for a hedge fund.
But Sunak himself has always declined to actually provide any ballast of any kind. The above sentence is the sum total of it. On Sunday he also told Marr that “we will prosper in any eventuality”.
This is only to repeat one of Boris Johnson’s big lies, that the UK will “prosper mightily” outside the EU. This statement has no basis in fact whatsoever, is not supported by any of the government’s own analysis, most of which it refuses to publish. It is simply a bombastic statement, to steal a march on the unforgiving minute, belonging very much alongside claims about the “world beating” test and trace system, and the pledge to “send coronavirus packing” inside 12 weeks.
Sunak’s wafer-thin City credentials do not hide the reality that he is no different on Brexit to his boss. The two men are straightforward cakeists, one and the same. As it happens, in the late Nineties, the schoolboy Sunak was writing Eurosceptic articles for the Winchester College newspaper, warning about Tony Blair’s plans to drag the country “into a European superstate”.
Next year, in a few weeks no less, Sunak’s schoolboy dreams will come true. The transition period will be over. He will have grabbed hold of “the flexibility” and “the nimbleness to adapt” that he once desired. These things will be of “enormous value” to him, of course, and to us. And yet, on Sunday, Sunak yet again became only the latest in a long line of Brexiteers that mysteriously do not want to talk about the previously vast economic potential of their grand project.
Sunak has been looking forward to this day quite literally all of his adult life. This is not, traditionally, the kind of thing people have to be pressured into asking simple questions about. And yet, when pressed, he would rather discuss coronavirus. The great opportunities of Brexit minimised, cast only as potentially less harmful than Covid.
It is an intriguing development. Coronavirus has obscured the reality that Sunak is the first chancellor in the country’s history fully ideologically committed to visiting economic hardship on his own people. No previous chancellor has been in favour of Brexit, even since 2016. Philip Hammond certainly wasn’t. Sajid Javid didn’t vote for it either.
Of course, it can be noted that, with personal private wealth through marriage running into the hundreds of millions, Sunak can certainly afford to indulge his ideological fantasies more than most. Though in fairness to him, said fantasies predate his vast enrichment by a very long time.
Euroscepticism in the Tory party is not a new thing. Its veterans – Bill Cash, John Redwood, Bernard Jenkin and co – are not young men and their ideas are as old as they are. They simply very strongly feel that four decades ago, the UK joined a trade bloc. That trade bloc now has a parliament, commissioners, and exerts authority over the UK, in areas like fishing and agriculture, where it has no place to do so. It’s an affront to democracy and to sovereignty, and we should leave it, whatever the cost. None of them, arguably to their credit, has ever seriously attempted to make the economic case, because they know there isn’t one.
Rishi Sunak, charming, likeable and calmingly unaggressive as he may be, is no different. For as long as he declines to elaborate in any meaningful way on the great economic benefits of Brexit, he should be taken no more seriously than the rest of them.
Next year, no doubt, the economic privations of Brexit, and the needlessly hard one that will have been secured, will be very easy to bury beneath the after-effects of coronavirus. The ageing Brexit hardcore may to the lay person appear somewhat unhinged, but to a certain extent, they have their integrity. It is not impossible to foresee their declining to blame coronavirus for the consequences of Brexit, because they have always been willing to bear the consequences, or more accurately, for other people to bear them.
On current evidence, Sunak may find he does not have sufficient reservoirs of moral courage to draw upon. If the c-word is his crutch now, it is hard to imagine it will not continue to be so.
“We will prosper in any eventuality.” He knows it isn’t true, and yet he continues to say it.
Though he may not be as steeped in the lies of Brexit as Johnson, it should be clearly understood that the two men are just the same. Sunak may be a new character in the story, but the plot hasn’t changed in the slightest.