Rishi Sunak says he is the only Tory leadership candidate willing to tell it like it is and in an underwhelming field he may indeed have the most financial know-how, but if he is quick to rubbish his opponents’ socialist “fairy tales”, he is not averse to the odd tall tale himself.
Because that’s what his latest pitch amounts to: a tall tale that recycles the old Boris Johnson-era mantra that if only the UK could get rid of all those suffocating EU laws – or to coin a phrase get Brexit REALLY done – then the economy would take off like a champagne cork being popped at Chequers during a national emergency heatwave.
Sunak promised his red-tape bonfire ahead of Sunday’s televised leadership debate – the second installment of this poorly conceived reality show where amnesiac contestants pretend the last three years didn’t happen while viewers are invited to select their favourite only to discover after sitting through the substance-free cringe-fest that they don’t get to vote.
During the debate, Sunak slammed his rivals’ “something-for-nothing” economics, notably suggesting Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was a socialist. If only any of the candidates had enough ideology to merit a label. She, in turn, pointed out that he had raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years, prompting an outburst of what sounded suspiciously like honesty from Sunak.
“I’d love to stand here and say I’ll cut this tax or that tax or another tax and it will all be okay but you know what? It won’t. There’s a cost to these things.”
Now there’s something that might have looked good on the side of a bus.
On paper, Sunak should be the strongest candidate on the economy because, after all, he was in charge of it until 11 days ago. But even so, this weekend, he found himself resorting to the hackneyed “bonfire of red tape”, presumably to woo Tory hardliners before they choose the final two candidates to be voted on by party members over the summer.
Writing in the Telegraph this weekend, Sunak trotted out some beloved Brexit catchphrases – Britain is better “unshackled” from the EU’s “low-growth, bureaucratic mindset” – as he promised to “ditch the mass of thousands of unnecessary EU laws and regulations holding us back” before the next election.
He said he would task a new Brexit department with reviewing all the remaining 2,400 EU laws on the UK’s statute book and then publishing a first set of recommendations on whether each law should be scrapped or reformed within his first 100 days in office.
Sound familiar? It should do because as it has become increasingly clear that the “benefits” of Brexit include a 4% drop in GDP, plummeting tax revenues, declining exports, and chronic labour shortages, the Johnson government has returned to page one of its playbook and gone back to blaming the European Union for … the UK’s failure to unleash the benefits of its decision to leave the EU.
In January, the Johnson government (in which, let’s not forget even if they do, Sunak, Truss, and fellow candidates Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt participated) set out plans for a Brexit Freedoms Bill to make it easier to remove outdated EU rules and cut red tape for businesses. At the time, Johnson said the bill would “further unleash the benefits of Brexit”.
In June, Minister for Brexit Opportunities (and Oxymorons) Jacob Rees-Mogg unveiled the dashboard of 2,400 evil regulations still hobbling Britain and said Brexit was not an end in itself but “the means by which our country will achieve great things”.
To which, surely, the only reply is: Now you tell us.
But Rees-Mogg, who is supporting Truss’ campaign, now says Sunak’s red-tape-busting pitch is suspect, claiming the Treasury had been “extremely unhelpful” when he tried to make sure taxation was not subject to EU laws and regulations.
“It is slightly surprising he wants to do this… As when he was chancellor he could have been helpful in repealing EU law, it is most peculiar that he has suddenly had a Damascene conversion when he wants votes,” Rees-Mogg said.
In any case, it seems it’s not that simple. Bloomberg reporter Alex Wickham said leaked Treasury documents showed that reforming EU laws could not be done by 2026 and that EU tax law would have to be exempt.
“Leaked documents show just 3 weeks ago Sunak’s Treasury privately argued EU tax law had to be exempt from the bonfire of retained EU law. Letter shows the Treasury said it wasn’t possible to just rip up four decades of EU tax law on the UK statute book,” Wickham said on Twitter.
Commentator Will Hutton tweeted that Sunak’s proposal to scrap EU regulation “will make it even harder to export to the EU, weaken the pound, increase inflation and is unwanted by business who will comply with EU rules anyway. It opens the door to hucksters and cheats. It’s total crap”.
This obsession with EU regulations – never mind the fact that many small businesses are finding themselves bogged down in the new red tape caused by Brexit – harks back to that other trusty Tory trope – that, freed of the shackles of the EU, a sovereign UK will rise to become a highly successful, low-tax, high-productivity centre. By slashing rules and laws, it will become, in fact, Singapore-on-Thames.
But that really is a fairy tale because Singapore’s economy, society, and geography are so different from the UK’s – for example, Singapore lies at the heart of trade in Asia, the government and sovereign wealth funds hold shares in large parts of the economy, the government also owns much of the land and housing, and there is a compulsory savings rate.
Sunak’s whinging about EU regulations mark a return to the rhetoric that got us into this mess in the first place and seems a sure sign that his administration would not mark a break with the Johnson-tainted past.
But to win this competition, you only have to be smarter than the other contestants. In the 2006 cult classic, Idiocracy, Private Joe Bauers, a very average American, takes part in a top-secret hibernation program but is forgotten and wakes up in a future world where people have become so dumbed-down by commercialism and stupid TV programmes that he is
easily the most intelligent person alive. And so he eventually becomes president. Perhaps the UK remake could be called Mediocrity.