United Kingdom

HENRY DEEDES watches as Chancellor Rishi Sunak revels in his tricky role

Boris Johnson’s hairdresser. Meghan Markle’s press secretary. Sir Philip Green’s aerobics instructor. There are some jobs out there no sane person would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Years ago, someone close to me – for reasons of her own – agreed to be a personal assistant to one of the Spice Girls. Legal reasons prevent me from spilling the borlotti, but let’s just say it was a miserable six months for both of us.

Few positions though, surely, are more undesirable right now than being Chancellor of the Exchequer. Cripes, the mere thought is enough to give you a thumping migraine. 

Just think of the oodles of furlough cash flying out of the Treasury coffers. Of all those millions Matt Hancock squandered on his useless test and trace thingummy. To top it all, he’s serving a Prime Minister who enjoys flashing the cash more than an oligarch’s missus.

Few positions though, surely, are more undesirable right now than being Chancellor of the Exchequer, writes Henry Deedes (pictured: Rishi Sunak during Treasury Questions)

Far from shrinking from the challenge, Rishi Sunak genuinely seems to revel in it. The man grows chirpier by the minute. Hard as it may be to believe, he actually seems to enjoy his job.

Yesterday at Treasury Questions, he came bouncing into the Chamber with the waggy-tailed enthusiasm of a Blue Peter labrador. He faced questions on apprenticeships, investment and home ownership. His exchanges were zippy. He snapped, crackled and popped.

His team, too, exhibit a reassuring self-confidence. On one side of Rishi perched the Treasury’s financial secretary, Jesse Norman, who has a raconteur’s delivery and a laugh like a bassoon. On the other, chief secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, a Brylcreemed swaggerer with rakish tendencies.

What a contrast with the chuckle-free zone opposite. There sat shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and her deputy Bridget Phillipson. Such eerily similar creatures. Same straight-bob haircuts, same blank expressions peeping over the top of their masks. They reminded me of the twins in The Shining.

Phillipson accused Sunak of short-changing the schools catch-up plan. She accused him of ignoring children while happily helping out ‘friends and donors of the Conservative Party’. The ‘favours for mates’ thing is Labour’s song at the moment – basically their only song.

Naturally, the issue of furlough was raised. And, just as naturally, Labour MPs such as Rushanara Ali (Tower Hamlets) wanted it extended. So did Treasury select committee member Mel Stride (Con, C Devon). 

He felt people in the travel industry were going to need continued support. Rishi seemed amenable to the idea. I’m not sure furlough is something this government can quit cold turkey.

The opposition benches were sparse again. Only four backbench Labour MPs bothered to show up. Considering it was Treasury Questions, this was seriously poor.

Yesterday at Treasury Questions, Mr Sunak came bouncing into the Chamber with the waggy-tailed enthusiasm of a Blue Peter labrador, writes Henry Deedes

Reeves stood up, eventually. What thorny issue did she wish to raise? The controversial plans for a new £200million royal yacht? Rumours of a smash and grab on pensions? Perhaps she would attempt a crabby jibe about reports of tensions between the Treasury and No10?

None of the above. Instead, Reeves demanded to know when the Chancellor would publish his report on the UK reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It was due last autumn, apparently. 

This didn’t strike me as matter on every voter’s lips, but then I am part of this dreadful Westminster bubble. They probably speak of nothing else behind the Red Wall.

When the Speaker called time, Rishi stood, turned to his backbench colleagues and shot them a nonchalant flash of the thumbs. He did not look overly troubled. Actually, his toughest battles lie ahead with his next door neighbour.

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