Sunak’s career can’t afford the Scrooge act

Universal credit

Over the last decade, the safety net for low-paid parents has been steadily chipped away. Some low-income families with children have lost the equivalent of thousands of pounds of tax credits, even after taking into account increases in the minimum wage, while some of the most affluent families have found themselves more than £500 a year better off as a result of tax cuts. These are hard-up families that can ill afford to lose the cash: for too many, it is the difference between getting by and making heartbreaking choices like adults missing meals so their children can eat.

Past Conservative chancellors would have had us believe these were tough but necessary cuts to balance the budget in the decade following the financial crisis. That’s nonsense, however. George Osborne and Philip Hammond spent more than they saved (in tax credit and benefit cuts) on making corporation tax cuts and income tax cuts that disproportionately benefited more affluent families. It was a question of priorities, and theirs was to redistribute money from hard-up families to those for whom an additional few hundred pounds makes much less difference.

Their successor Rishi Sunak has enjoyed touting himself as the “generous” chancellor, pointing to the government’s furlough scheme and support for the self-employed during the pandemic. Yet for low-paid parents, much less was on offer: he increased universal credit by just £20 a week, nowhere near enough to make up for what many had lost since 2010. This temporary increase has been extended a couple of times over the past year, but it is now set to be cut from October onwards, leaving unemployment benefit at its lowest real levels since the early 1990s, even though many workers are still suffering from the impacts of the pandemic.

There have been a small number of Conservative backbenchers who have consistently opposed this cut because of the impact it will have on their constituents. But as parliament went into recess, their ranks were swelling with some unlikely suspects. Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe who is better known as the former chair of the Conservatives’ right-wing European Research Group, and current chair of its Covid Recovery Group, has spoken out about “intolerable” levels of hunger and poverty in his constituency and urged Sunak to drop the plans.

Rishi Sunak has enjoyed touting himself as the “generous” chancellor, pointing to the government’s furlough scheme and support for the self-employed during the pandemic. Yet for low-paid parents, much less was on offer

This will be one of the big parliamentary clashes of the autumn and is a headache for Sunak and his Conservative leadership aspirations. Even as he heralds his own generosity, Sunak has been acting the fiscal hawk to signal to his parliamentary
colleagues that on public spending, he’s the successor to Thatcher they may be looking for: the repeated fights with Marcus Rashford over funding of meals for poor children in the school holidays; breaking the Tory manifesto pledge not to cut international aid spending below 0.7% of GDP; playing hardball over tax rises to fund a cash boost for the NHS and a long-term solution on social care funding.

But post-Brexit and with ongoing Covid, with child poverty levels rising and tax credit cuts biting voters in Conservative marginal seats, Sunak may well have charted the wrong course to the premiership. It is hard to see voters craving a frugal politics in the coming years. Brexit is forecast to widen the gap between London and the rest of the country, and many people will not have experienced decent wage growth for nearly fifteen years. One thing is certain: Britain’s social and public services infrastructure cannot afford a Prime Minister Sunak.

Belarus

Amidst the medals and celebrations, the discussions about sports and mental health, one chilling story from the Tokyo Olympics reminds us that some athletes are competing for countries in which their very freedom is at stake. The Belarus athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has sought asylum from Poland after attempts were made by Belarusian sporting authorities to forcibly repatriate her to Minsk because she dared to criticise them.

This is only the latest example of authoritarian crackdown by Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko. Thousands have been thrown in jail and faced torture and abuse for their political views, and in May Lukashenko ordered the grounding of a flight while it was in Belarusian airspace in order to kidnap a dissident blogger living in exile, Roman Protasevich.

The biggest geopolitical questions are for the EU, which imposed a further round of economic sanctions on Belarus in June; expectations that they will succeed in reining in Lukashenko are low. But soft power is important, and Lukashenko has in classic dictator-style talked up Belarus’ potential sporting success as a political rejoinder to his international critics. More than twenty athletes have been imprisoned for criticising the regime, and dozens more have lost their livelihoods.

The IOC banned Lukashenko from attending the games, but this falls far short of the solidarity one might expect with imprisoned Belarusian athletes. Should the Olympics allow a regime that imprisons and tortures athletes for their political views to be part of the competition? The Olympic charter is clear that athletes cannot be discriminated against for racial, religious or political reasons. The attempted repatriation of Tsimanouskaya is likely to reopen an age-old debate about whether Olympic values have become meaningless.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4

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