Rishi Sunak has an impossible job: to spend, but not to tax | Rafael Behr | Opinion

This time last year, it was hard to imagine anything ruining a chancellor’s plans more than Brexit was disturbing Philip Hammond’s. But that was a different era. Hammond had not been exiled from the Tory party, no one had heard of the coronavirus, supermarkets had ample supplies of toilet paper, and Rishi Sunak was a mere parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Sunak’s rapid ascent to the job of chancellor gives him status, not stature, and he goes into his first budget with authority already diminished by the circumstances of his promotion. Sajid Javid resigned rather than surrender his Treasury advisers to a command-and-control structure based in Downing Street. By accepting the job on terms that were unacceptable to his predecessor, Sunak advertised himself as the most submissive chancellor in living memory. If he has an independent streak, he keeps it covered in public. He is fluent in that polystyrene dialect that politicians use to pad out space in interviews when they would rather say nothing. That makes it hard to distinguish between caginess and mediocrity. Sunak’s friends laud his intelligence but to the outsider he is unimpressive, which is what impressed Johnson about him. The prime minister knows that governments need capable managers but he is also vain enough to prefer the meek brand of competence that does not encroach on his limelight.

The Tory leader is easily upstaged by professional seriousness. It happens when he is flanked by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser to deliver updates on the battle against coronavirus. To hear Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance talk about balancing risks, evidence, ratios and probabilities is to be transported far from the jagged, bellowing cadence of recent British politics. Brexit banished the idiom of qualified expertise, and it has taken a crisis of unavoidable technicality for the experts to be recalled.

Johnson deserves some credit for ceding the floor to them and sounding deferential in the process, although it sets the leadership bar pretty low to praise a prime minister for knowing when to take advice on science from his scientific adviser. That skill is remarkable only in someone notorious for doing the opposite.A deadly epidemic would challenge any administration but it is especially testing for Johnson’s team, because their default response to any problem is to campaign against it. That is a consequence of staffing Downing Street with senior figures from Vote Leave, the winning side in the 2016 referendum. That faction, headed by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, is skilled at manipulating national debate and disorienting enemies with a hostile frenzy. Those techniques have limited effect against a microscopic pathogen. Coronavirus will not be bullied by anonymous briefing.

Perpetual campaigning plays to Johnson’s strengths as a communicator. He is a better candidate than an incumbent. Brexit has always sounded better as an ideological crusade, with clearly defined enemies, than as a technical project to be managed. The implementation phase is boring, difficult and expensive, with no glitzy political payoff, which is why Johnson avoids public association with the day-to-day negotiations.

Brexit is both a symptom of ideology supplanting pragmatism in the Tory party, and a cause of that process accelerating. But Johnson himself lacks the consistency and discipline of a true ideologue. To prove his credentials as a true believer, he has to keep people such as Priti Patel and Dominic Raab in high offices of state. They are symbolically inflexible – radical rightwing totem poles at the gates of government, reassuring the Brexiteer faithful that their creed is being properly observed on the inside.But for the Treasury, Johnson prefers someone like Sunak – a Eurosceptic (he voted leave in 2016) but not a reactionary culture warrior or a fiscal disciplinarian.

The prime minister wants a chancellor who is not stingy when there is political pressure to spend. The Tory manifesto promised to balance the books by 2023, borrowing only for capital investment, but Johnson finds that fiscal belt too tight for his bloated rhetoric. He has promised money for the NHS, schools, police officers, buses, flood defences and a renaissance across underperforming regions. It is Sunak’s job to deliver this bounty without raising income tax, VAT or national insurance – the Treasury’s biggest levers for extra revenue.

It is a tall enough order even without the global economy showing symptoms of Covid-19 infection. The budget will offer to insulate businesses from economic contagion as the disease takes its toll on trade and confidence. The emergency conditions give respectable cause for belt-loosening so markets will not recoil, but there is still a cost in credibility if a government bends brand new fiscal rules before they have ever been applied straight.

It is a chancellor’s job to deliver a budget that supports the prime minister’s agenda, but it is also a function of the Treasury to resist Downing Street when economic facts diverge from the government’s political narrative. Hammond performed that role under Theresa May, and it made him a dissident within the Conservative party. Johnson wants no gloomy number-crunchers interrupting his upbeat storytelling. If he says the sun will shine, he does not need some Eeyore chancellor by the window pointing at clouds. Giving the job to a biddable rookie is meant to eliminate that problem. It probably just postpones a crisis, because the tensions are inherent in the Tory manifesto that Sunak’s budget claims to be enacting.

Johnson wants to spend and build, but not to borrow or tax. He promises Brexit dividends that will not appear by magic on the hard road he is taking away from Europe. He has reached the limit of what he can achieve in campaign mode but is not ready to make the painful choices that government requires. He was carried to power by zealous revolutionaries but is not one of them by temperament. As a result, his government has the aggression of an ideological project but not the coherence. It is still running on the momentum of its election victory, but that will soon run out. For now, the Tory party is mostly still persuaded that Johnson is leading them to a promised land. Others can see he has no idea where he is going.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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