Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Hunt and Sunak, the thin but compassionate Government

Andrew Gimson's Commons sketch: Hunt and Sunak, the thin but compassionate Government

About ten minutes before Jeremy Hunt rose to speak, Boris Johnson entered the Chamber and seated himself in a fitting place for a former Prime Minister in the third row just below the gangway.

Beneath him at the Despatch Box stood his successor but one, Rishi Sunak, thin, energetic, self-possessed and not very revealing as he took questions about the G20.

Johnson, exuding affability, looked around for someone with whom to share it, glimpsed across the gangway his own predecessor, Theresa May, and froze.

How chilly she looked! No chance of a light word there. He turned away, slightly abashed, but was rescued a moment later by Andrew Stephenson, a Whip, who sat down on the step between the two former PMs and engaged in smiling chit-chat with Johnson while beneath them Sunak expertly swept away down the platitude slope.

He came Hunt to deliver his Autumn Statement, the main event of the day. Like Sunak, he is thin, energetic and self-possessed. The future, or at least the present, belongs to thin, courteous, rather tense professionals.

They insist they are going to take care of things, and even of us. “To be British is to be compassionate,” Hunt asserted at the start of his statement.

We are, he admitted, facing “global headwinds”, but the Government will lead us through them. Sunak, sitting beside him, nodded frequently and emphatically.

Johnson nodded rather less frequently and emphatically. He picked up an Order Paper and made a note on it. Could it be that he intended to say something? If so, as a former Prime Minister he would be called almost immediately.

But first we had almost an hour of Hunt, most of it heard in silence by his own side as they tried to calculate how much higher the tax burden is going to go. The Chancellor sounded like a provincial solicitor reading out a Will which he knew was bound to disappoint the many members of the British family who had come to hear it.

In the gallery, we saw some members of Hunt’s own family, listening intently to him on his big day.

“Anybody who says there are easy answers is not being straight with the British people,” Hunt warned. He only started to relax a fraction when he reached the National Health Service and said a former Health Secretary “wrote a book about it which I’ve read”.

A jokey reference to his own book! The Government will adopt his recommendation that it works out how many doctors, nurses and so on the NHS will need in the future.

Hunt has also hired Patricia Hewitt, a former Labor Health Secretary, to advise on integrated care. He has stolen one of theirs! Was that a compassionate thing to do? The Tory benches laughed and Labor looked cross.

He reached a passage about growth, elicited some skeptical cries from the Labor benches, and said with sudden partisan force: “Well they’ve never been interested in growth!”

How the Tory tribe roared its approval. At last the battle was being carried to the enemy, towards whom no mercy needs to be shown. Growth alone offered a way out of all these unpalatable facts – a point recently made by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.

The Chancellor warmed to his work and announced that he is going to “turn Britain into the next Silicon Valley”.

Some of us have no idea how big Silicon Valley is, but could the next one really cover the whole of Britain? Hunt made an opaque reference, during a passage about devolution, to “an area in the North East to follow shortly”. Perhaps that is where our Silicon Valley is going to be.

“British resilience and British compassion,” Hunt said in his speech, having just announced that he would protect the pension triple lock.

Rachel Reeves, for Labour, accused Hunt and Sunak of being pickpockets, and said they had “forced our economy into a doom loop”.

Johnson jiggled his foot impatiently, but as soon as she finished left the Chamber. No endorsement from him for the thin men who are now running the show.

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