Rishi Sunak had a pre-game Twix and a Sprite to prepare for this week’s impressive Budget. I used to have a cup of very sugary tea. It was a tip from our joint mentor, William Hague. It coats the throat in preparation for speaking in a rowdy chamber. Even then my voice would be hoarse by the end of an hour’s Budget statement. It’s hard to convey just how noisy it is standing there with a couple of hundred adults screaming at you from a few feet away. But on Wednesday the House of Commons seemed quieter than it used to be on these big days. I’m not sure why. With taxes going up, spending rising and government intervening in industry, you’d think there would be lots for Labour MPs to shout about.
A strong commitment to the Northern Powerhouse and an increase in the national living wage we introduced are music to my ears. It’s also comforting to see Treasury orthodoxy prevail. That great department doesn’t have a strong view on how much money should be spent, just that it has to be paid for. Getting his neighbour to agree to an increase in national insurance to pay for more NHS spending was no mean feat by Rishi. Geoffrey Howe’s landmark budget of 1981 increased taxes to cut the deficit; so did my emergency budget in 2010. Sound money rather than a smaller state is the guiding star of Conservative chancellors.
On Monday we got stuck in the permanent traffic jam by Stonehenge. Seven years ago, at another spending review, I announced over a billion pounds for a new A303 road tunnel. Nick Clegg rushed down there to claim credit and said it would be built by the end of decade. Unwittingly, it was fake news — preparing Sir Nick for his next career. Seven years later, there’s no tunnel, in fact there’s no sign of any construction work under way at all. Our Neolithic ancestors, who managed to drag those huge bluestones all the way from Pembrokeshire, would not be impressed at the slow pace of modern life.
New research suggests parts of Stonehenge may have originally stood in Wales before being carted off to England around 3000 bc. I haven’t heard of anyone yet calling for the stones to be returned. There’s a great new exhibition on the history of Stonehenge coming next year to the British Museum. I love the place and I’m thrilled I’m now its chair. People have been calling for the restitution of certain artefacts for decades, indeed centuries. It would be easy for us, the trustees responsible, to hide behind the 1960s Act of Parliament, which largely prevents us doing that. The harder approach is to stop being defensive and instead make the positive case for this incredible display of civilisations. Yes, we need better buildings, the latest technology, proper engagement with source communities and a bigger presence around Britain. The government helped us with all that this week. But for me it’s simple: in an age that is pulling us apart, the British Museum is the place best equipped in the whole world to tell the story of our common humanity. We’re going to tell that story with confidence.
To New York to compare notes with one of the other great universal museums, the Met. Visiting the US after a two-year absence felt like reconnecting with an old friend. The highlight was a trip to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. George W now has the big house; the other siblings, including my friend Jeb, all have homes there too. Much as I love my brothers, I’m not sure I’d want to spend every holiday with them. I’ve just finished writing a chapter for a book on another president, Lyndon Johnson. ‘I want people around me who would kiss my ass on a hot summer’s day and say it smells like roses,’ said LBJ. How different from our own Johnson administration here in the UK.
Back to No. 10 for a 20th anniversary dinner for the 2001 intake of Tory MPs. We were a small band of brothers (and one sister), elected despite the Blair landslide. At the time they said we could forget being ministers because there would never be another Tory government. Instead we produced two prime ministers. Our dinner in the state dining room last week was full of reminiscence. We mourned our colleagues Sir David Amess and James Brokenshire. The majority who’ve left parliament commended the minority who remain to do good work. I don’t remember much else, except Boris in his toast talking about a home insulation scheme involving windows that he was going to call Green Sill. David Cameron responded, saying being back in Downing Street had filled him with nostalgia… for the good old days when there was food on the supermarket shelves, you could fill up your car and Tory budgets cut taxes on jobs and businesses. It was a great evening.
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