As every Chancellor knows, behind every figure in the Treasury lie thousands of human stories. At times like these, saving lives is the first, unmitigated priority. This means releasing whatever resources the NHS requires. Hospitality, retail, the self-employed: otherwise healthy enterprises of every description are facing an existential threat. Supporting businesses with government-backed loans is a good start, but it won’t be enough. Temporary tax cuts are also needed: ‘No need to pay’ rather than ‘Time to pay’. If we want the economy to surge back once the danger has passed, these measures will need to be rolled out soon and at top speed. The economic package thus far is only the opening salvo in the fightback against coronavirus. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the economic fallout is also a profoundly human tragedy.
On the morning of the Budget, I woke to the news that the Bank of England had announced — almost word for word — half the speech I had prepared for later that day. Listening to the Chancellor address the House prompted an array of emotions. Sorrow that I’d never had the opportunity to lift the red box. Delight at months of work finally being made public, albeit not in the way I’d imagined. Above all, a sense of immense pride that the man giving the performance of his life at the despatch box was my long-time friend Rishi Sunak. Early in the new year, I’d invited Rishi and his wonderful family to stay at Dorneywood. As we sat together in the warmth of a roaring fire, Rishi remarked how beautiful the house and the surrounding countryside were in winter. ‘I’m glad you like it,’ I replied, ‘it’ll be yours one day.’ I was proved right, albeit a bit sooner than I expected.
It’s strange to think that only last month I was in No. 10, midway through a rather awkward conversation. The PM was interrupted by an outburst of barking from the garden. ‘Is that your dog or mine?’ he mused. ‘Sounds like Bailey,’ I said, and waited for him to collect his thoughts. Half an hour earlier, Boris had been busy listing our successes at length, praising my team for turning around the fastest spending review on record and taking apart Labour’s spending plans in the subsequent election. Only after I was reappointed did he set out what he wanted me to do next: surrender the Treasury’s autonomy to No. 10 and sack my advisers. I knew instantly they were terms I could never accept, and that I would walk out the door a backbencher. I was offered tea and time to reflect while a parade of friends came by to try to change my mind. The PM summoned me for a one-on-one in his study. We went back and forth, him leaning on his desk, me pacing the floor. The dog stopped barking. Eventually, I could see that we had reached an impasse. I assured the Prime Minister of my respect and support for him, and reached for the door. ‘Where are you off to, Saj?’ Boris asked, surprised. ‘To book a family holiday,’ I said. I was just in time.
I went to the flat above No. 10, where my brilliant wife Laura was sitting in the kitchen, oblivious to what had happened. I confessed what I had done — first to silence, then disbelief. ‘Well. What next?’ she asked. ‘We need to move out. Now.’ I threw some clothes into a case, and headed out through the hallway. ‘Wait!’ she called after me. I turned, thinking she wanted to share one final thought together in a home that had hosted heads of government for hundreds of years. ‘You’ll need to take Bailey — here’s the lead and a poo bag.’
Along with my brothers, I am urging my elderly mother to minimise social contact as best she can. This week I was furious to discover that having ventured to the supermarket for her regular food shop, she had returned home empty-handed. Just as the stock-market crash warns us about the economy taking a hit from coronavirus, empty shelves should alert us to the threat it poses to our society. A branch of Iceland preserving an hour a day for the use of pensioners is a superb example of what’s required: business, not just government, needs to think of novel ways to tackle new problems. I promptly wrote to every large supermarket in my constituency to ask them to do the same.
My mother, however, isn’t concerned. She’s never lost a sense of what led her to make Britain her home in the 1960s: an enduring admiration for the people of our country and their strength of character. These aren’t qualities that slip away in a crisis. Rather, they become more important than ever. We’re entering a scenario without precedent in modern times: with common purpose and a sense of humour in the face of adversity we will, as a country, emerge stronger on the other side.
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