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Sunak pledges hope, even if it feels hopeless

Faisal Islam
Economics editor
@faisalislamon Twitter

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced nothing new in his virtual Tory conference speech, with the government still in crisis mode.

He did reiterate to the party faithful that he will balance the books, despite increased spending in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic - but not just yet. That is promised "over the medium term", ordinarily viewed to be a period of a few years.

In his online speech during the Conservatives' annual conference, he said: "I won't stop trying to find ways to support people and businesses."

However, he added the party could not argue there was "no limit on what we can spend", nor that "we can simply borrow our way out of any hole".

This is hardly been a low-profile year for the new chancellor, with a raft of policies aimed to protect and boost the economy.

But the promise to deal with spiralling borrowing and public debt must be seen in conjunction with the other notable promise: "Even if this moment is more difficult than any you have ever faced, even if it feels like there is no hope, I am telling you that there is, and that the overwhelming might of the British state will be placed at your service."

It is a fascinating sentence to hear from a Tory chancellor, and one wonders if this incarnation of the Conservative leadership, owing its majority to attracting a different type of voter, will begin to get a taste for it.

More immediately, the chancellor knows that just days after his Winter Economic Plan, with unemployment set to go above 5%, and social restrictions intensifying, not loosening, there is now further backroom pressure to increase the generosity of his worker subsidy schemes.

He promised to be pragmatic as these unprecedented events evolve.

So this is a continuation of the pattern we have seen in the past few weeks since the cancellation of the Budget. There'll be more support for the economy, but with the really tough decisions - for example, on tax, or in the Spending Review (which was not mentioned in the speech) - put off.

No doubt, as the new darling of the Conservative faithful, the chancellor would dearly have loved to deliver this speech to a full hall. By the time he gets that pleasure, the message may have to become far tougher.

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  • Rishi Sunak vows to 'balance books' despite pandemic