YOU can tell a lot from a Chancellor’s photoshoots, starting with whether he does them at all. Rishi Sunak will do the boring old pre-Budget pose on the pavement outside Number 11, but he will go that extra photographic mile besides. If there is a winter economic plan to be released, or, as yesterday, a spending review to be unveiled, in comes the photographer.

Look carefully and you can chart the Chancellor’s progress, and much else besides, through such images. He started off his photoshoots dressed in a casual jumper, gazing at a bank of computer screens and surrounded by books. The message: I’ve got a big brain and I’m always “on” even when it looks as if I’m off.

READ MORE: Spending review, Scottish reaction

That one was generally well received. Not so his pre-Budget shoot of August 2020. Being seen with a £160 travel mug (it keeps your brew at the right temperature and can launch satellites into space, or something) was not a good look when millions were worrying about the mortgage.

It also reminded the public that the former Goldman Sachs banker and hedge fund manager is a wealthy man, the richest in the Commons say some. While his exact net worth is not known, when he started off his own hedge fund ten years ago there was £557 million in the pot.

The most recent photos, released this week, show he has learned his lesson. Gone is the travel mug and in its place is a pretty, everyday looking china cup. He is also pictured wearing a hoodie over his shirt and tie, as though he has just popped a jumper on to save on heating, much like the rest of us in these uncertain times. In another nice touch, he is seen practising the speech he gave to the Commons yesterday. Hard-working, humble, a man of deeds and words: he comes across well.

With the state the economy is in the Chancellor needs all the positive optics he can get. We knew the forecasts from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility were going to be bad, but what the Chancellor presented to the Commons was the stuff of economic horror movies. Borrowing of £394 billion this year, the highest in peacetime history. The UK economy to shrink by 11.3% next year, the largest fall in output for 300 years. The economy not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until late 2022.

After the war on coronavirus, set to go on for some time yet, comes a long, slow slog back to anything approaching economic normality. To call it an “economic emergency”, as Mr Sunak did, almost bordered on understatement.

Despite the enormity of the task ahead, the Chancellor had very little room for manoeuvre on the day. Faced with an unprecedented crisis in the public finances he went so far and no further. One day he will have to consider deep spending cuts, or increasing income tax, national insurance and VAT but, like St Augustine, not yet. In the meantime, he made do with a public sector pay freeze, exempting doctors and nurses, and cutting foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income, a fall of £5bn.

The main focus of his spending review was jobs and rightly so. The OBR expects unemployment to rise to 7.5% next year, some 2.6 million people. That is a terrifying prospect, particularly for one of the hardest hit groups, 18-24 year olds. We saw only too clearly in the 1980s what happened when a generation was thrown on the scrapheap, and that was under a Conservative Government too.

There is one particular job with which Mr Sunak is increasingly linked, and that is the one currently held by his boss, Boris Johnson. On the subject of bad optics, it was telling yesterday that prior to the Chancellor’s statement, Mr Johnson conducted Prime Minister’s Questions live from what looked like a broom cupboard in Number 10, self-isolating as he is due to contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

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Forced to defend the indefensible behaviour of his Home Secretary Priti Patel, accused of bullying by an independent inquiry, the PM looked far removed from the fray, a minor presence on the fringe of events, unlike his Chancellor.

Mr Sunak would not do anything so gauche as to pitch for the top job in any overt way. He hardly needs to. In poll after poll he comes out ahead of the PM on perceived fitness to do the top job. Mr Sunak’s star has been on the rise for some time, even before he was cast in the role of protector of jobs and dispenser of grants. He came to the attention of many when he stood in for his party leader in the televised election debates. He shone next to Nicola Sturgeon, no mean feat. Big political player recognised similar, with the two making everyone else look minor league.

How would Scotland’s First Minister fare against a Prime Minister Sunak? While he has enjoyed the same privileged background as most of his predecessors, he is charismatic and approachable in a way none of them has been.

As well as appearing to understand everyday practical problems he can do the “vision thing”. What other Chancellor, as he did yesterday, has ever spoken of a spending plan to “release kindness”? To say such a thing when you have just cut overseas aid – a clear breach of a manifesto promise and, as it stands, against the law – was astonishing. If Mr Sunak wanted to dispatch a signal to the right of the party that he will do whatever it takes to get the finances on a more even keel, consider it sent. As for the uproar caused, that will add to the Chancellor’s standing in some quarters.

READ MORE: Minister resigns after spending cut

Overall, Mr Sunak managed to be generous in some areas, including, potentially, those “red wall” seats in the north of England, while ushering in what amount to cuts in public spending. To many this will sound exactly like the return of austerity, hitting the poorest hardest.

We know what will be held to blame for the economic pain to come, the pandemic, but who will carry the can in the UK Government? Today, more than ever, it will not be Mr Sunak.


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