Jeremy Hunt’s Goodbye Downing Street tourby
The Autumn Statement is set to be the start of Jeremy Hunt’s farewell tour, if rumours are to be believed that he could be part of the prime minister’s reshuffle plans soon. But will he go out with a whimper or a bang?
As things currently stand, the government is only willing to confirm that Hunt will remain in post until at least the Spring Budget 2024. That doesn’t exactly sound like job security. If I was Hunt I wouldn’t be investing in redecorating Number 11 with £840-a-roll gold wallpaper.
If anything, it sounds like Hunt is readying himself for an Elton John-style goodbye tour, with a Glastonbury-style send off at the Spring Budget next year. But with rumblings from the back benches to axe the “bland” chancellor, Hunt probably won’t make much of a dent in suppressing inflation by selling his goodbye tour t-shirts out of the boot of his car.
While agitation grows amongst senior Tory backbenchers about the Chancellor’s uninspiring style at the despatch box, rumours suggest that he’s not being pushed by the prime minister.
Instead, Hunt is bidding Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on his own terms rather than experiencing the horror of his own Portillo moment at the next general election. Not that Michael Portillo has done too badly out of it, managing to pivot nicely into a career as a TV train enthusiast. Since Hunt wouldn’t look too out of place in an anorak, perhaps the glamour of television could be his next calling?
Going out with a bang or a whimper?
So with nothing to lose, is Hunt going to go all out in his last two gigs? Going by his previous fiscal statement performances he doesn’t have too many greatest hits to lean back on.
When he took the job, his only requirement was to keep a low profile and not do what the last bloke did. And he did exactly that. In many respects, Hunt styled his approach to the nation’s finances after a mannequin. He didn’t have the Budget Day flair of George Osborne or the tax reforming radicalness of Nigel Lawson. He was just there; styling out the season’s latest red box. Occasionally smiling. Occasionally blinking. But mostly just there.
And for all the bluster about abolishing inheritance tax, the Autumn Statement has the hallmarks of being another non-event with the real fireworks held back for what many people expect to be next year’s tax-cutting Spring Budget.
That’s not to say the Autumn Statement is going to be the toilet break before Hunt rallies the backbenchers with his version of Budget Night’s alright for fighting. The MTD small business review has quietly chugged along since the Treasury confirmed the delay at the end of last year. It makes sense then for that announcement to land with the rest of the Autumn Statement documents. We can also expect the confirmation of the new merged R&D scheme.
He’ll then have the unenviable task of padding out the rest of the 60-minute-long speech with flannel and poorly delivered jokes without having HS2 to tick off his Budget Bingo card this year.
All of the big tax cuts will likely be saved for the Spring Budget, which would then launch the Conservative Party’s election campaign. But at this point, even Hunt probably doesn’t know what the lie of the land will look like for his potential swan song at the Spring Budget. The snake-hipped lambada-loving Chancellor is more than likely looking further ahead to his post-political career where he can let loose on the Strictly dance floor (take that Portillo!).
Next in line
So who might the prime minister pick next to move into Number 11? Since the Labour Party seems to be only a removal van booking away from moving into Downing Street as soon as the general election is called, Sunak may use a reshuffle to nip in before his opponents have a chance to anoint Rachel Reeves and install the first female Chancellor in British history. Claire Coutinho, the current Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, is a name that has been thrown around as being in line to pip Reeves to the honour.
And let’s not forget that Hunt was not Sunak’s first choice for Chancellor. He was stuck with him after Liz Truss needed to bring some boring stability back to the Treasury - and aside from an actual mannequin, Hunt was the next best thing.
Throughout Sunak’s leadership bid his right-hand man was Mel Stride, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. However, many AccountingWEB readers will likely remember Stride from his tenure as the financial secretary to the Treasury, where he was responsible for HMRC and that small little digital project called Making Tax Digital. So perhaps Stride may get the gig many assumed he was going to back in the Summer of 2022.
Tax and the economy is going to be one of the arguments that decides the next general election. Politically, it makes sense for Sunak to rejig the cabinet to make a claim that this is not the same old gang that has been running the country for the last decade. So whoever is Chancellor, don’t expect Jeremy Hunt 2.0.
Until then, the Hunt farewell tour continues. The only question is, if he’s hoping to go out with a bang (à la Elton John) come the Spring Budget next year, will he be serenading the economy with 'I’m still standing' or 'Sorry seems to be the hardest word?'