There was hardly a dry eye in the House, yesterday as 00 Sunak delivered his spending review, so eye-watering were the numbers revealed to the Commons. At one stage the session had to be extended to allow room for the sheer size of our plight to be laid out before the watching nation.
An independent budget watchdog said that the economy would be 11.3 per cent smaller this year than was forecast before the Coro ... blah, blah, blah, the biggest fall for 300 years, and still 3 per cent smaller by 2025 owing to “long-term scarring”. To put that into context, three hundred years ago, in 1720 (oh, you got that?), George I (George Louis, German Georg Ludwig) was king of England, British convicts started to be transported to overseas colonies and it was the year before Sir Robert Walpole became our very first prime minister. Overseas, the people of Argentina were dreaming of a little fat sports star to rescue them from the doldrums; that wasn't going to happen for at least another 450 years.
Oddly, 1720 also saw Western Europe's last major outbreak of medieval plague, when a “mortal distemper” seized the French port city of Marseille. The disease arrived on a merchant ship called the Grand Saint Antoine, which had picked up infected passengers during a journey to the Middle East. Up to 20 per cent of the citizens of Marseille died as a result of the outbreak.
Our very good friends at the Office for National Statistics reported that between £21 billion and £46 billion in tax rises and spending cuts would be needed by 2025 to arrest rising debt levels after years of record borrowing, including almost £400 billion this year, the highest in peacetime.
"And now for the good news," said Rishi in the Commons. MPs looked up hopefully from their despair and, with impeccable timing, the Chancellor then said, "Only kidding, there isn't any."
But he wasn't kidding, as our own home-grown 'hand-of-God' then announced new spending, as if he hadn't been paying attention to himself for the past 20 minutes. The next James Bond chatted through measures, including for a “levelling-up” regeneration fund for deprived areas. Boris Johnson told the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers that he thought the OBR forecasts were too “gloomy”. They are, of course, because that is what economists do, they all being the fourth children of four in each of their families and craving the attention their parents never gave them. The prime minister said he would wager that a combination of mass testing and vaccines meant that Britain’s economic position would be better than the forecasts. Finally, some sense; a prime minister prepared to gamble on our future and wager on life-saving vaccines. My, how the Commons needed such levity. Sir Keir Starmer could hardly contain himself, so split were his sides.
Public sector workers found it a little tougher to see the joke, as it was announced that millions of them would be victim of a pay freeze next year, although the lowest paid will receive increases of up to £250 and Mr Sunak says that the majority will see their pay rise. So, not a pay freeze then? What?
Then, just as the scores were level at one-all, the hand-of-Rishi rose in the penalty area when he announced a further £55 billion earmarked for pandemic spending next year on top of the £280 billion this year. Thank heavens, public workers said, so we are getting paid then?
"Oh, no," said Rishi, "we cannot afford that, we are still paying for Boris' last lot of wagers."