It’s been a busy month in Westminster, but a relatively good one for the Prime Minister.
Firstly, the Budget went smoothly. Big announcements on childcare and getting rid of work capability assessments for disabled people went down extremely well, as did the three year (hopefully permanent) full expensing of capital expenditure to incentivise investment.
Labour was largely left focusing on the raising of the pension lifetime allowance as a sign that the Tories are still Tories.
However, the party came unstuck when it emerged their shadow health secretary had supported reform to keep doctors in the NHS and that Keir Starmer benefits from a unique pension arrangement meaning the lifetime cap doesn’t apply to a big chunk of his own pension savings.
So politically, the Budget was a relative success, with the Chancellor able to say we won’t enter a technical recession this year. But with the tax increases coming online people face a record hit to their standard of living over the next two years, during which there will need to be a general election.
The Chancellor’s fiscal buffer of £6.5bn is wafer thin, meaning his targets are extremely vulnerable to events. If the plan is to start ‘affordable’ tax cuts from this Autumn or next Spring, it could very easily fall apart.
Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt’s growing reputation for competence was also bolstered by their facilitating the saving of the UK arm of SVB Bank.
The collapse of US banks and the difficulties at Credit Suisse has inevitably raised questions about financial stability and whether government plans for a ‘Big Bang 2.0’ to maintain our leading position as a financial centre could see a repeat of the mistakes of the past.
The Chancellor, in giving evidence to the House of Lords, said he’s determined not to unlearn the lessons of the last financial crisis, but that “sticking with the status quo is not necessarily the best thing to do to ensure financial stability.”
These and other key issues will be a focus for debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which will be nearing its final stages in the Lords after Easter.
One thing didn’t go as well as hoped for the Prime Minister this month. Having secured a deal with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, he was unable to convince the DUP to vote in support of the Stormont Brake. It’s therefore unlikely that the DUP will agree to restore power sharing in the Northern Ireland Executive.
The silver lining for Rishi Sunak is that only 20 Conservatives rebelled, showing that the influence of Brexit purists has waned significantly, and Conservative MPs want to ‘move on’ and focus on the issues that will determine how they fare at the ballot box.
One of the rebels was Boris Johnson, who ignored the implications of his Brexit deal for Northern Ireland to ‘Get Brexit Done’. He has been fighting for his political life in front of the Privileges Committee against accusations that he intentionally – or recklessly – misled the House of Commons over Partygate.
Their key argument? It must have been obvious to him that the guidelines, if not the rules, were being broken and that he must therefore have known his statements that they were complied with at all times were false. Also, that he was reckless in not properly investigating the claims that were emerging and relying on the word of political advisers that were involved in the events.
His defence? Partly semantics – the guidelines said they were to be followed “where possible”. More substantially, there’s no evidence of a cover up and no smoking gun that he intentionally misled in all of the emails, WhatsApp messages and witness testimonies – in fact the opposite. He honestly believed the events he attended for the time he was there were part of his work, his duty as a leader and were within both the rules and the guidelines.
If not, why, he argued, would he have had an official photographer taking photos and why would one of the events have been proactively briefed to the media? No one at the time raised concerns to him and no one reacted to the media article. Everyone in Downing Street also thought the guidelines were being complied with.
If a PM can’t rely on the word of their senior advisers, he said, then government would grind to a halt. If the Committee concludes he is a liar, they will effectively be saying the same about all the officials involved.
Having watched the three and a half hours of questioning, the tone of the session doesn’t bode well for his exoneration. If the Committee finds him guilty and MPs subsequently decide to punish him with a suspension of 10 or more days, it could lead to him being ‘recalled’, triggering a by-election, in which case he could stand, but perhaps not as a Conservative.
Whatever happens, the Johnson psychodrama will continue for a while yet. Perhaps thankfully, with Parliament in recess for most of April, next month is set to be relatively quiet.