Rishi Sunak on sleepless nights, Bettys and following William Hague
The responsibility weighs heavily. “The classic thing is it is a lonely job because your job is to say no a lot,” he tells The Yorkshire Post candidly.
Yet the Richmond MP – the country’s most popular politician at present – is amongst friends as he begins his first constituency walkabout since Covid-19 struck in March and he put the economy in lockdown.
He’s been to Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital to meet frontline NHS staff. Sincere and serious, he was genuinely moved by the visit. “To be able to say thank you in person was really humbling,” says Mr Sunak.
As he approaches the market, this fast mover – both as a person and politically – is quickly spotted by cobbler Gary Puggmurr from Dennis & Parry’s shoemakers who wants to thank Mr Sunak for sending a letter of support after a fire. It mattered that he took the trouble.
Next Cowley Cycles where the Chancellor, who runs to keep fit, says he may be back to buy a bicycle so he can enjoy rides with his young family.
And then he turns into the High Street where a gentleman on a bench holds out his hand in greeting. “I’m not allowed to shake your hand but I will give you an elbow,” Mr Sunak tells Barry Thomason who is visiting from Leeds with his wife Violet.
They note Bettys is still shut – but the Chancellor has good news for them. “I think Bettys is opening on Monday, and then we know life will be really back to normal.” They smile.
Their friend Violet Andrews, who lives in Richmond, says Mr Sunak has “a job in a million” to do. He replies: “You gave me the support to do it, but I am very grateful.”
Reassured by the long queues outside Northallerton’s specialist shops, another person, laden with bags, is advised to “keep shopping” before Mr Sunak reports to another passer-by that he’s been to the Friarage and that there are just 15 Covid cases in South Tees at present. “We’ve just got to keep it like that. We will, we will.”
He’s repeatedly told: “Very well done Rishi.” He invariably responds: “Very nice to see you. How’s the family?”
He then arrives at Barkers department store which has reopened after being closed for 12 weeks, though some of its 200 staff are still on the Chancellor’s ‘furlough’ job retention scheme.
He’s encouraged by what local traders told him. “I’m really inspired by all the traders and shopkeepers I’ve met today, and all their staff,” he reports.
“They’re filled with positivity, they’ve done a lot to make sure their shops are safe and they can welcome us all back. That fills me with a lot of optimism for the next few weeks and months.”
The Chancellor notes that the decision to exempt the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors from business rates will pay off – but accepts the point made by Barkers boss Guy Barker that high street stores and online retailers do need more of “a level playing field”.
However, while Mr Sunak promised to do “whatever it takes” to support the economy, he realises that one of the shortest words in the English language is also one of the very hardest to say to colleagues – no.
What keeps him awake at night after be promoted from Treasury chief secretary in February, just weeks before the Budget, when his predecessor Sajid Javid resigned? “Feels like a lifetime ago,” he observes. “The classic thing is it is a lonely job because your job is to say no a lot.
“That’s not because you’re a mean person, or a bad person, but because your job is to balance everything and make difficult trade-offs and try to figure out what are the things we have to prioritise over other things.
“All of us do that in our households, it’s no different for me. I have to do that for the country, sometimes that can be a lonely job but that comes with the territory.”
He goes on: “This lockdown has had a huge impact on our economy. It’s not just points on a graph, it’s going to be many peoples’ lives and livelihoods that are impacted I want to make sure I help them and I’m there for them.
“We stood behind people, I think, through this crisis, that was important to me to stand behind everyone through this crisis, and it will be my job to stand behind them when we come through the other side.
“And make sure they can rebuild their lives if they lose their jobs...that’s something that weighs very heavily on me as a responsibility of mine.”
A simpler question is the Yorkshire person who inspires Mr Sunak the most. “That’s supereasy. I’m very lucky. As you know my predecessor is William Hague,” says the politician who hails from Southampton.
Challenged to come up with another more original name, Mr Sunak continues: “I’m genuinely serious. It’s daunting stepping into William’s shoes, and before William we had Lord (Leon) Brittan here and Tim Kitson (as MPs for Richmond).
“William is someone, and the word I use is respected, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be as respected as William was and he was an amazing local MP; he was always closely entrenched in his community.
“But he was a national political figure of significance, and also a global statesman and someone who is still widely listened to. I like this word respect because it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to agree with you but they can, at least, respect you for working hard and trying to do the right thing.
“I speak to William a lot, he’s always been an enormous source of advice to me from the first day I was a MP and grappling with the basics.
“You have this absolutely legend whose shoes you have to fill. They can never be filled because he’s William Hague and that’s that. If I have a problem and I need some advice or support, he’s on the end of a phone and I’m always very grateful for that.”
Time’s up. Rishi Sunak wants to buy a pork and apple pie from Kitsons. He’s been re-energised by his visit ‘home’ before his ‘day job’ resumes. As Chancellor at a time like no other.
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