What’s he like? Rishi Sunak’s test will be the recession – Tom Richmond

‘WHAT’S he like?’ It is a measure of the public’s regard for Rishi Sunak that so many friends have been making contact to ask about my interview with the Chancellor last weekend.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak during his visit to Barkers department store in Northallerton. Photo: James Hardisty.

Acquaintances whose primary interest, in many instances, would be horse racing rather than politics, they all wanted to know if the Richmond MP is a potential prime minister.

That is, of course, being presumptuous when politics is so fast paced and fickle – Mr Sunak was only elevated to Chancellor in February, or as he put it so candidly, a “lifetime ago” when the economic landscape was very different.

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His immediate challenge will be to lead Britain’s recovery from the deepest – and sharpest – recession in history while scaling back support schemes, like furlough, in which the Treasury paid people to stay at home.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak meets shoppers in Northallerton. Photo: James Hardisty.

Will political and public opinion be so favourable when people start losing their jobs and Mr Sunak runs out of blank cheques to sign? His upcoming statement to Parliament will be even more crucial that the Budget in March.

But what was striking was the strength of his relationship with the residents of Northallerton after succeeding William Hague as the area’s MP five years ago.

He knew many people by name – and made a point of asking them about their family. He was able to make everyone feel special while putting them at ease.

There’s no more passionate supporter of the high street than the Chancellor. He’s on the side of independent traders.

Rishi Sunak in Barkers department store. Photo: James Hardisty.

He definitely wants to speed up the implementation of policy and was frank when he accepted that his Covid schemes have not helped every intended recipient – the difficulty, he said, was coming up with a national policy with great urgency when every family’s needs and circumstances are different.

The way in which Mr Sunak spoke about skills, and how it was a desire to make a difference to education policy that attracted him to politics, suggested that social mobility will go to the heart of his mission, even more so given that he’s the first to acknowledge his privileged upbringing.

And he did not hesitate when asked if Covid-19 and the deepening recession would mean the scaling back of Government ambition on the Northern Powerhouse. No it would not, he stressed.

Yet, while it is naive to assess any politician on a 20 minute interview, Rishi Sunak has an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge that can only help the country. He came over as a sincere statesman and even Labour MPs have contacted me to say they’re impressed by him and have time for him.

Rishi Sunak dring his interview with the Yorkshire Post's Tom Richmond. Photo: James Hardisty.

If that great political unknown – events – is kind, he has a favourite’s chance of going on to even higher office. But, like racing, and he’s a fan of the sport, there are never any certainties in politics.

RISHI Sunak is also acutely aware of the need to draw up long-term reform plans for the funding of social care – an issue that The Yorkshire Post has long highlighted.

A Green Paper – yes, another one – was due to have formed part of last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, before Brexit, and the December election, got in the way.

Now the national response to Covid-19 is the priority amid anger that the pandemic’s impact on care homes was overlooked by Matt Hancock, the Health and Social Care Secretary, until it was too late.

Yet Mr Sunak chose his words carefully after confirming that the Government was making an extra £1bn a year available to this sector.

“We’re also committed to long-term reform,” he told me. “We want to try and do that on a cross-party basis.”

Explaining how this process began when Sir Keir Starmer became Labour leader, Mr Sunak went on: “Because it is something that is so fundamental, and will have implications not just for years, but decades, it would be nice to try and build a consensus around what the solution is if we can. And that’s what we will try and do.”

IF you haven’t already visited Northallerton, especially on market day, then you should.

The main street was closed off to enable market traders to pitch their stalls. Parking was exceedingly reasonable – £2 for the whole day.

The queues outside specialist stores, such as Thomas the Baker, Kitson’s Butchers and many more, showed a determination by local people to support high-quality independent traders. No wonder Chancellor Rishi Sunak was so keen to buy some acclaimed pork and apple pies.

Yet, while these are certainly tough times for local high streets, the country’s reawakening form the Covid-19 lockdown is also a chance to do things differently. And, from what I saw, Northallerton is leading the way and deserving of a visit.

THERE was little unanimity on the Labour benches when Boris Johnson set out the latest steps being taken to lift the lockdown. Party leader Sir Keir Starmer gave a cautious welcome. “I believe that the Government are trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Leeds East MP Richard Burgon was irreconcilable, claiming the announcement was all about “appeasing right wingers” and that the Government was “gambling with people’s lives”.

At least Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin asked a very serious – and sensible – question about Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants, including premises in Cleckheaton. It prompted the PM to concede: “We need to get to the bottom of what is happening.”

Let’s hope the Government does – and then explains the steps being taken to ensure, not least, that the hard labour of British farmers is not being put at risk.

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