Furlough, Universal Credit and mortgages: The key announcements from Rishi Sunak's 2021 Budget

What Rishi Sunak said in his Budget speech – and what he really meant

Our chief political commentator tries to imagine the chancellor of the exchequer’s internal monologue as he made his announcement

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Wednesday 03 March 2021 15:57
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What Rishi Sunak said: What was originally thought to be a temporary disruption to our way of life has fundamentally altered it. People are still being told to stay in their homes.

What he actually meant: Note the use of the impersonal passive voice. I didn’t want to tell people to stay in their homes. If you are sick of it, blame him next door.

What he said: Much has changed, but one thing has stayed the same. I said I would do whatever it takes. I have done and I will do so.

What he meant: Money has ceased to have any meaning, but I will do whatever it takes to become prime minister before the day of reckoning arrives.

What he said: Our economy has shrunk by 10 per cent, the largest fall in over 300 years. Our borrowing is the highest it has been outside of wartime.

What he meant: I am a record-breaking chancellor. I have had greatness thrust upon me.

What he said: But we will recover. This Budget meets the moment with a three-part plan to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people.

What he meant: There are three parts. And a plan. You cannot ask for more than that at this time. It is all very difficult.

What he said: We reaffirm our commitment to end low pay.

What he meant: I am not going to give the Labour Party any space at all. I am the heir to Gordon Brown.

What he said: We’re using the full measure of our fiscal firepower to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people. But the damage caused by the coronavirus has created huge challenges for the public finances.

What he meant: Taxes are going to go up, and this is a bit awkward because they can’t go up yet while we’re in a deep economic hole, and they can’t go up around the time of the next election, so I am casting around for a way of postponing them until 2025.

What he said: Underlying debt … then peaks at 97.1 per cent in 2023-24 before stabilising.

What he meant: Someone else can fix the roof after the next election.

What he said: The only reason we have been able to respond as boldly as we have to Covid is because 10 years of Conservative governments painstakingly rebuilt our fiscal resilience.

What he meant: Austerity was worth it. But we’re not doing that again, because I want to be prime minister. Look what happened to George Osborne.

What he said: This Budget is not the time to set detailed fiscal rules.

What he meant: Most chancellors set out fiscal rules and then break them. I will skip the first stage.

What he said: Let’s consider the alternatives. The first is to do nothing, to leave our deficit problem untreated, our debt problem for someone else in the future to deal with. That has never been the way of a Conservative government.

What he meant: This is not a Conservative government.

What he said: The other would be to make savings from public spending. But when we said at the last election that we were the party of public services, people believed us.

What he meant: This is basically a Labour government.

What he said: It’s not enough to have some general desire to grow the economy. We need a real commitment to green growth.

What he meant: It is not enough just to say you want good things, you have to make it sound as if you have a plan to obtain them. And it has got to sound like a really convincing plan. Preferably with three parts.

Budget 2021: Total UK Covid relief package worth £407bn, Sunak says

What he said: We need a real commitment to create jobs where people are and change the economic geography of this country.

What he meant: We need to put London on wheels and move it to Glasgow. Judge for yourself how likely that is.

What he said: Becoming a scientific superpower is something we can be; I don’t think that’s hubristic or unrealistic.

What he meant: It is hubristic and unrealistic.

What he said: I have one final announcement that exemplifies the future economy, a policy on a scale we’ve never done before … a policy we can only pursue now we’re outside the European Union …

What he meant: Freeports. Yes, well, sorry about that. The cupboard is bare. The guy who runs the rabbits-from-hats unit in the Treasury said there was nothing left but this dog-eared Adam Smith Institute pamphlet from the 1980s. Desperate times, etc.

What he said: And so. Whilst this last year has been a test unlike any other, that which we are, we are.

What he meant: Insert boilerplate rhetorical uplift here. A bit of archaic syntax lifted from Tennyson. The end of the speech is in sight.

What he said: The fundamentals of our character as a people have not changed. Still determined. Still generous. Still fair.

What he meant: The prime minister has made such a mess of handling coronavirus, but public opinion is determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Just don’t understand it.

What he said: An important moment is upon us. A moment of challenge and of change. Of difficulties, yes, but of possibilities too.

What he meant: I have to hold a press conference in a bit.

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