Sunak’s budget is his last big chance to show that he has a grip on the UK

There's speculation about tax cuts in the budget, but even that may not save the Prime Minister – or the Tories

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will present the UK budget on Wednesday. Getty Images
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One of the best things about writing books is going on a book tour. I’m in the middle of one now. A tour means authors meet readers – and sell books – at public events with audiences at festivals, theatres and book shops.

I’ve been up and down the UK from Scotland and Northern Ireland to Wales and all across England with more venues in the next month. I’m discussing my new book Britain Is Better Than This which, as the title suggests, argues that Britain remains a great country, but as a nation we often fail to live up to our own best standards.

To take some obvious examples, the University of Cambridge has more Nobel prize winners than any country in the world except the US and Britain itself. British musicians are known all over the world. British writers such as Ian Fleming, J K Rowling and JRR Tolkien create heroes and villains that produce some of the biggest Hollywood franchises, and fill cinemas around the world.

But there is a gloomy sense of things going wrong in Britain right now. Our public and political life is not living up to the hopes and aspirations of most of us. Economically we are under-performing.

In years gone by, book tour audiences would sometimes say that the British system of government “doesn’t work in theory, but works in practice.” I don’t hear that much any more. Instead, people talk of systemic failure and a country too often stuck in the glories of the past.

Last week, for example, I spoke at a book festival in Kent, where 16 of the 17 parliamentary seats are held by Conservative MPs. But I heard repeated complaints about things not working well, about a government and politicians generally out of touch.

I hear complaints about failing public services, incompetence in government and the decline of standards and loss of national pride in our great institutions

Voters will get a chance to have their say soon in a general election. That means Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s budget this week is probably the last big chance for him to demonstrate he has a grip on the way the country is moving.

The speculation has been about tax cuts, perhaps 2 per cent off national insurance. This is red meat to traditional Conservative voters, but even if such a cut is announced, it may not save Mr Sunak.

As James Callaghan, a former British prime minister, famously put it back in 1979 when his government was wiped out by a landslide for the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher: “There are times… when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

Many of those book festival audiences appear to sense that such a shift has already taken place. The complaints I have heard most often on the book tour will not be solved by a tax cut. Audiences talk about the high cost of living, and 2p in the pound off income tax doesn’t compensate for 14 years of austerity.

Everywhere I travel across the UK I hear complaints about failing public services, incompetence in government, poor transport links, sewage in rivers and the sea, the decline of standards and loss of national pride in our great institutions including the National Health Service, local councils (some of which face bankruptcy), underfunded universities and schools, and other public services.

A tax cut now may simply be a sign of the Sunak administration leaving a poison-pill legacy for a future Labour government, which will – many economists believe – probably have to reverse any cuts to fund damaged public services.

The Labour Party remains way ahead in opinion polls, reflecting James Callaghan’s sense of a major turning point. Even in a largely Conservative county like Kent, many voters appear to think the Conservative Party has run out of ideas. Mr Sunak himself is hugely unpopular. Voters may not be wholly enthusiastic about the Labour party either but polls suggest they see Labour as the least worst option.

Barring surprises, therefore, this week’s British budget is likely to be the last big scheduled political event before a general election. It will be analysed, sliced and diced by economists and others, but it is difficult to believe a possible tax cut a few months before an election will make a significant difference.

One other peculiarity of the British system is that Mr Sunak has never faced a national vote as leader despite being prime minister since October 2022. He succeeded the disastrous premiership of Liz Truss but neither Mr Sunak nor Ms Truss secured a personal mandate from the British people.

They both became prime minister only as a result of an internal Conservative Party campaign and support from MPs or party members. That, as book festival audiences used to say, is “just the way the British system works.” But does it “work” any more?

Trust in UK political parties has plummeted to just 12 per cent according to the Office for National Statistics, making them the least trusted of any British public institution. Since the party system is at the core of democracy, that is not good news.

Published: March 05, 2024, 2:00 PM