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Rishi Sunak tight-lipped over how he'll mend nation's finances

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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In his short time in one of the highest offices in the land, Rishi Sunak has already seen more turmoil, and taken more dramatic actions, than some chancellors ever do.

The occupant of Number 11 taking to the political lectern during an economic crisis is normally a massive moment too. Not so much today.

Perhaps, after an alphabet soup of announcements over the recent months, there was not at this stage very much else to say.

He listed 19 different steps the Treasury has taken to try to soothe the economic trauma of the lockdown and ongoing limits on the country doing business.

Even in what was such a short speech, compared to the chancellor's normal conference moment, he took time to make three clear political points.

First off, he began by lavishing praise on his boss - congratulating Boris Johnson on his handling of the pandemic, talking about his concern for the public, his ability to get the "big calls" right, the sense of purpose that he sees close up from his next door neighbour.

Not so long after the prime minister landed a huge majority and propelled Mr Sunak himself to prominence, it's noteworthy that he even felt the need to say that.

  • Sunak vows to 'balance books' despite pandemic

Less surprising perhaps that he wanted to express his loyalty, given suspicions at Westminster that the chancellor harbours ambition for the top job.

Second of all, the chancellor echoed his often-stated concern for people losing their jobs, talking of his own "pain", and promising that he would use the "overwhelming might" of the state to help.

It is true that with his signature very publicly all over it, the government has spent an absolutely mind-boggling amount of money trying to prop up the economy through the crisis.

But it's also true that that support is moving to a much less comprehensive phase and that unemployment is likely to rise, perhaps dramatically. Mr Sunak may promise to do everything he can to help, but the actions the government is taking are a series of political choices.

The safety net the government has woven during the pandemic is vast - but nets still have holes and this one is shrinking.

That is explained, at least in part, by the third message the chancellor wanted to send today. At the start of the crisis he said "this is no time for ideology".

But today, Mr Sunak made it clear he still sees himself, and wants to be seen, as harbouring traditional Conservative economic beliefs, not just valuing entrepreneurship, but with a commitment to balance the books.

Government borrowing is at stratospheric levels because of the pandemic. It is not clear precisely what the chancellor means, promising to get it under control in the "medium term".

Nor was there even a whisper of how that could be done.

Treasury sources suggested it's unlikely to happen by the time of the next election, likely to be in 2024.

But while the chancellor's first few months in the job have been characterised by enormous crisis-level spending, that is a characteristic that he is keen to shrug off.

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