By Edward Ferrin – Business and Economics Editor
The Gown Newspaper asks: Does the Chancellor relegate his hopes to be PM or relegate the economy?
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, has accused the government of “re-announcing plans than get work done.” Her attack on the Treasury came less than a week before the budget by Rishi Sunak. In a period of frustration among the public about the COVID-19 restrictions, anger among business owners and dismay among workers about to pay more national insurance contributions – the Chancellor of the Exchequer has his work cut out on Wednesday!
Rishi Sunak came into 11 Downing Street in the aftermath of a personal battle between Boris Johnson and his colleague, Sajid Javid at the beginning of 2020. He has now led the biggest public intervention into the economy since World War Two, but does he have the strength to get through the next few months?
Sunak has to promise a lot in this budget. Money to assist victims of crime, especially those of sexual assault, money committed for railways including High Speed Two north of Birmingham, help repair the damage done to childcare after austerity cuts to SureStart and billions to claw back the long waiting lists on the NHS. The list goes on and on!
Conservative MPs have been divided into factions over the past few months over the pandemic, the economy and quite frankly, the government itself. It may be premature to say it, but the last ever Conservative Prime Minister to have presided over a split Tory party was Theresa May and well, her long-term leadership of her party and her country didn’t last for long. Boris faces attacks from the right of his party, including Desmond Swayne and the anti-lockdown Tories and from the left of his party, who are worried that those “red wall” seats won in 2019 could turn away in the aftermath of the £20 uplift for universal credit being removed.
Mr. Sunak must decide whether the budget is to protect the economy from further stress or protect his chances to become the next Conservative Prime Minister. Labour are now waiting for a moment to enact revenge on the Tories and the budget provides Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves with that opportunity. For the economy, it’s clear! We will see huge government spending to save jobs and protect incomes. If it will be enough – that’s another question yet to be answered.
Northern Ireland has a lot of work cut out also. The limits of devolution at Stormont have shown their face these past few weeks, with MLAs unable to afford keeping the Universal Credit uplift continuing into the new year, because Northern Ireland’s finances are handled in London. The Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, has huge challenges when he sets out the Executive’s spending plan for the next three years.
Northern Ireland isn’t in a good financial state all round – we remain one of the most expensive regions on the British Isles for childcare costs, one of the quickest to enter recession and one of the slowest to find prosperity. The Executive must stand united when the financial plan is presented to the public. MLAs need to tackle NHS chaos, improve Northern Ireland’s housing rents, face the climate crisis head on and provide good pay to public sector workers.
We can take comfort in the achievements of the past few years – the opening of the Magee Medical School in Foyle, marking a turn of the corner for the North-West. But challenges remain for the region – the rail service between Belfast and Dublin remains underfunded and outdated compared to its counterparts in Europe, the air travel industry is struggling at Belfast’s two airports with Ryanair pulling out altogether in the Summer and the continuing tensions that have arisen over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with Jeffrey Donaldson veiled threat to collapse Stormont in the middle of a huge gamble for the financial futures of Northern Ireland citizens.
If we can be certain of one thing, it is simply that the Chancellor in London and Conor Murphy in Belfast are going to have a long day at the office! Unemployment is still above pre-pandemic level and lockdowns are still yet to be a certain thing of the past whilst inflation is about to make an untimely arrival and spark havoc on families across the UK. Just in time for the Christmas break…