Rishi Sunak had done his homework. Watching Boris Johnson give evidence to the Covid inquiry last week was a study in bafflement – he had apparently spent ten days being coached by his legal counsel ahead of his testimony, but you would never have known it from his performance. Johnson was vague, often seemed confused, and was not at all across the detail.
Sunak could not be accused of that. On Monday, while his Rwanda plan was melting down elsewhere, his Covid testimony often referenced not just his own evidence, but frequently referenced the evidence of other witnesses to the inquiry. The result, though, was not someone who gave the impression of earnestly trying to help an inquiry get to the truth – it was instead just a novel form of evasiveness.
Initially, Sunak’s obvious preparation seemed impressive, but by about an hour into his evidence, a very clear pattern could be seen. He would be asked a question requiring him to either speak beyond his written evidence or to corroborate or rebut someone else’s submission.
Instead, Sunak would pretend he had been asked a simpler question that was already answered by either his own written statement or by someone else’s. He would quote that recollection – making it clear it wasn’t his own, where appropriate – and consider the question answered.
The tactic was particularly maddening when Sunak was answering questions from the barristers – all of them King’s Counsel – representing devolved administrations. The main line of questioning noted that when Wales, for example, wanted to try a circuit breaker lockdown, funding was not available for that until the Westminster government decided to lock down nationally.
This was a significant line of questioning for the inquiry, and so it deserved much better than Sunak setting out (multiple times, at some length) how the Barnett Formula, which governs funding to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, works – as if a senior barrister representing the devolved administrations didn’t know already.
Sunak’s preparation, then, didn’t serve him well. By choosing to answer an easy explain-it-to-a-five-year-old version of each question he was asked, Sunak regularly slipped into his patronising public schoolboy mode. When it became clear that while his memory for the written evidence was excellent, he could never recall anything embarrassing that wasn’t in there, he seemed like a public schoolboy lying to his housemaster.
But it was when it came to the notorious Eat Out To Help Out (EOTHO) policy that Sunak’s failings as a politician and as a minister really showed. EOTHO had strict requirements to qualify for its discount: you had to dine in rather than getting takeaway, and you had to eat on Sunday to Wednesday.
The result of this was that hospitality venues were packed on those days and relatively empty on the traditionally busy days – both the people who would’ve dined out anyway and those tempted by the policy ended up packed in together for a discount. Anyone spending more than two minutes thinking about the policy could guess its effect on transmission.
Sunak freely admitted he didn’t consult anyone outside of the Treasury before announcing the policy. He didn’t need to, he explained, because it was a “micro-policy”. SAGE and advisors had given their recommendations on reopening restaurants, so he didn’t feel any need to check this policy, since it just affected restaurants that were already open.
This is telling in two ways. The first is that it suggests the man who then ran the economy and now runs the country doesn’t see the difference between saying “my pizza place is now open, visit if you like” and “FREE PIZZA IF YOU VISIT IN THE NEXT HOUR”, which bodes ill for everyone. But it’s more telling that he didn’t bother to check if anyone else saw problems in his plan that he didn’t.
Sunak, with his habitual petulance, noted that no-one specifically raised issues with EOTHO with him after it was announced – ignoring, who knows whether deliberately or through sheer obliviousness, that scientific advisors might be wary of arguing to withdraw a literally free lunch from the public after they had been told about it. Does anyone seriously think that person wouldn’t find themselves named on the front page of a tabloid within a day or two?
It says a lot about Rishi Sunak’s premiership that today – six hours of grilling by barristers in a public inquiry – will probably be the best day of his week. But it still shows his fundamental deficiencies, his inadequacy as a politician on this level.
Yes, Rishi Sunak did his homework. But once again, he completely failed to understand the assignment.