Welcome to Sunak’s ‘age of optimism’ – where you have to hope for the best | Tom Peck

Welcome to Sunak’s ‘age of optimism’ – where you have to hope for the best | Tom Peck
This was a Labour budget, delivered by a Tory chancellor, which means there was almost nothing at all for anyone to cheer about

Here it is then. “An economy fit for a new age of optimism.” That’s what Rishi Sunak called it as he unveiled it at the despatch box of the House of Commons.

Can it really be a mere twenty months since he was standing in that same spot, delivering his first budget, which would include a generous, world-beating, Covid-19 rescue package that ran to a whopping £30bn. Two years and an extra £400bn later, one does wonder if the “age of optimism” has been going for a while.

Still, it’s a good name. Optimism is the defining mood of the times we live in. After all, to even describe yourself as an “optimist” is to acknowledge that you live in a world in which pessimism might be the saner option.

To my knowledge, no national lottery winner has ever described themselves as feeling “optimistic.” People who are “feeling optimistic” tend to be parents whose children have been brought to visit them in prison.

So when people really aren’t sure how they’re going to be able to heat their homes over Christmas, or whether there’ll be any food or presents for them to buy, Sunak is absolutely right that we are living in the age of optimism. The age of hoping for the best because that’s all you can do.

And was it a glass half full or a glass half empty experience?

Well, if you buy a pint of beer in a pub, Sunak has cut the cost of that pint by a whopping three pence, which if you drink your pints in pubs in London or any major city, where a pint is now routinely north of £6, what you’re looking at there is a “Buy 200 Get One Free” offer.

Red wine, meanwhile, will now be subject to a new tax of fully 47p a bottle, which means if you buy twelve, you now only get eleven.

Still, if you need any more confirmation that it was a budget long on optimism, you don’t need to look much further than the phrase “the post-Covid economy.” One chap who wasn’t there to listen to Sunak talk about the post-Covid economy was Keir Starmer, who was instead diagnosed with Covid.

When his absence from the chamber was announced by the speaker, following his positive test that morning, two full benches of Tories roared with laughter. None of them were wearing masks, which might go a little way to explaining why the “post-Covid economy” might take a little bit longer to arrive than they reckon.

It was about the only time they cheered all afternoon. Actually, that’s not true. When Sunak announced a change to, wait for it, the “tonnage tax” on shipping, which would mean that cargo ships would now carry the British “red ensign” instead of the “flag of an EU country” that went wild at that.

But there wasn’t very much for them to cheer. There were new taxes for this, and new spending on that. Tories, generally speaking, like low tax and low spending.

This was a Labour budget, delivered by a Tory chancellor, which means there was almost nothing at all for anyone to cheer about. He even cut the price of a Diane Abbott train mojito by fully 23p a can. How are they meant to top that?

According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), Rishi Sunak has raised taxes in a single year by more than any other chancellor has managed in the last thirty. And he had plans to spend it, too. When he said the words, “The first 1,001 days are the most important in a child’s life,” there was a moment of genuine, spine-tingling tension.

Current government policy on childcare is that you get thirty hours of free childcare a week once your child turns three – in other words, once those crucial 1,001 days are over.

Before that, in the two and a bit year gap between the end of maternity and paternity leave, and the third birthday, the child lives in what this government would call the age of optimism.

In that, absolutely no one’s going to help you out so just hope for the best, and try and find a spare grand a month from somewhere to pay some of the highest childcare costs in the developed world.

Surely there’s no way the chancellor, in the middle of a budget, could start talking about the “first 1,001 days” and then do absolutely nothing about one of the most urgent problems, and gravest government failures, in Britain today?

I’m afraid I must report that the age of optimism started to look a bit tarnished at this point, although there was an announcement about a new training programme for childcare workers. So that’s nice.

He saved his grand moment for the end, naturally – an eight per cent cut in the universal credit taper rate, which means a small percentage of people on universal credit who’ve just lost the £20 a week uplift can be optimistic about maybe getting some of it back next year.

But the greatest optimism, naturally, was Sunak’s own. “As we look towards the future,” he told them, winding up to his grand conclusion. “I want to say this simple thing to the House and the British people. My goal is to reduce taxes. By the end of this parliament, I want taxes to be going down, not up.”

The very best of luck with that, chancellor, what with inflation forecast to rise to 4 per cent, an ageing population that locks in slow growth, all of whom have been promised index-linked benefits. The age of optimism, really, is just getting started.