Budget 2021: Chancellor Rishi Sunaks address a case of the good, the bad and the bubbly

Rishi Sunak’s budget can be summed up as the good, the bad and the bubbly.

The teetotal chancellor – who drank water during his 63-minute speech – presented himself as the boozer’s friend, with cheaper beer and fizz and a business rate handout to pubs.

Budget 2021 live: Reaction to Rishi Sunak’s address

That was the good and the bubbly.

The bad – critics will claim – was slashing domestic flight taxes just days before COP26, nothing on cutting VAT on energy bills and what opponents will claim is a miserly change to Universal Credit.

His help for booze and pubs has already been dubbed “Drink Out to Help Out”, though his claim that his “beer barrel politics” is a Brexit bonus is one for saloon bar bores to argue about.

Examination of the budget small print also reveals that it looks like the duty on port and claret is up and it is down on rose and draught beer. All part of Boris Johnson’s levelling up, no doubt.

Defying predictions that “Squishy Rishi” would squeeze Whitehall budgets, he has splashed the cash, claiming many of his big pledges restore spending to pre-2010 levels or the highest for a decade.

Sounds good. Well, up to a point.

As Labour’s impressive Rachel Reeves pointed out, who has been in power for the past 11 years? The Conservatives of course.

What Mr Sunak has done has buried George Osborne’s “Age of Austerity”, hoping voters will forget it is Tory cuts he is having to reverse. Boris Johnson will not mind an attack on Cameron-Osborne economics, however.

The Universal Credit change is a tax cut for those in work, but will not help those who are not. Tory MPs will be happy, but it will not end criticism from opposition MPs and trade unions.

One surprise was his pledge to restore the Tories’ overseas aid cut in 2024. He will hope that promise will bury the argument about that controversial move.

Handed the worst gig in the parliamentary calendar, responding to the budget, Ms Reeves had only minutes to prepare after the Labour leader, “COVID drama Starmer”, tested positive at 11.45, just before PMQs.

But she coped. After all, she is a former Bank of England economist.

Some Westminster veterans compared her accomplished stand-in role to the mighty Gordon Brown stepping in when John Smith had his first heart attack in 1988.

Is Sir Keir now becoming the unluckiest Opposition leader in recent times? This was the fifth time he has had to isolate, even though it is the first time he personally has tested positive.

Mr Sunak splashed the cash so liberally, with a barrage of promises spat out like a machine gun, that it could almost have been a Gordon Brown budget.

That is Labour’s problem. They are not going to oppose cuts in booze duty or the further freezing of fuel duty for White Van Man. What is there left to oppose?

This budget from “Dishy Rishi” will have done his Tory leadership ambitions no harm. Liz Truss, alongside him on the government front bench, must be seething.

Some will claim all this spending means it is really Boris Johnson’s budget. But the PM in many ways is an easier target for Labour to attack than Mr Sunak.

And after this “Prosecco Budget”, Rishi is fizzing. And Rachel Reeves, unexpectedly thrust centre stage, has not done her leadership chances any harm either.

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