HENRY DEEDES watches Rishi Sunak announce national insurance changes

Tight-suited Rishi Sunak played it as slick (and smug) as any game show host: HENRY DEEDES watches the Chancellor announce his alteration to next month’s national insurance rise

Sheer pandemonium in the Commons yesterday – of the sort usually reserved for last-gasp Wembley equalisers. Footie fans are well-accustomed to the feeling: an injury-time, back-of-the-net roar followed by lengthy exhales and a light tapping of the chest to make sure the old ticker’s still tocking.

That was the vibe on the Conservative benches yesterday when Rishi Sunak announced his sneaky alteration to next month’s boneheaded national insurance rise.

The relief among Tory benches was palpable. Members whooped and waved their order papers. Jacob Young (Con, Redcar) raked his beard with the back of his fingernails and double-punched the air.

Down on the frontbench, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey gave a slow, mechanical nod of the head.

Parliament of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak delivering his Spring Statement in the House of Commons

In Coffeyland, where life moves just that little bit slower, this is the equivalent of a standing quadruple backflip.

The move caught shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves on the hop, forcing her into a hasty rewrite of her response.

‘Cheer up, Rachel!’ someone heckled as her script seemed to become a swirling sea of red ink.

From a theatrical point of view, the Chancellor’s announcement had produced a very rare thing for a Spring Statement: genuine surprise. Pre-match briefings to journalists have recently robbed these occasions of all tension, and most of what gets announced on the day tends to be stale old potatoes.

Not this time. Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle must have gathered leaky Treasury officials together and read them the Riot Act.

Mr Sunak got to the Commons early. I spotted him and his entourage just before 10.30am, some two hours before the off. He was primped and coiffed, wearing one of his usual thigh-hugging suits.

Goodness, those trousers were tight. They made the teensy black things Olivia Newton-John wore in Grease look like tracksuit bottoms.

In fact, he appeared so small when he sat down in the Chamber I genuinely thought he might get swallowed up by the Prime Minister’s left armpit.

Boris, I’m afraid to report, appears to have been at the cheese trolley again.

Note to Downing Street housekeepers: it might be time to put a night-time padlock on the pantry. Rishi opened with a dialogue about the horrors in Ukraine. He spoke of women and children ‘huddled in basements’ seeking protection from Putin’s bombs.

However, he insisted, the Government’s sanctions were working.

‘Not nearly enough!’ parped Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda).

‘Ssssh!’ Tory MPs chorused. Mr Bryant sniffed the air, unrepentant. He obviously believed his contribution was worth it.

Soon we were into the chewy gristle. Britain’s economic outlook remained grim.

Low growth, high inflation. Debt interest payments, we learnt, would hit £83billion this year. Hearing this figure, an old boy up in the visitor’s gallery almost choked on his dentures.

From a theatrical point of view, the Chancellor’s announcement had produced a very rare thing for a Spring Statement: genuine surprise writes HENRY DEEDES

The Chancellor’s delivery was as slick and sharp as ever. Energetic, too. Unlike his dull predecessors, he knows how to hold an audience.

Like a game show host, he announced that fuel duty would be cut ‘Not by 1p… not even by 2p… but by 5p per litre!’ When he came to his big national insurance announcement, Rishi informed the House his original plan had been to raise the threshold by £300.

‘But I’m not going to do that,’ he said, almost whipping away an imaginary cheque. Pause for effect.

‘I am going to increase it by the full £3,000!’

Slightly too smug, but it beats listening to Philip Hammond drone on.

If the national insurance announcement was a hit, then a promise to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 19p before the next election fell oddly flat.

Some may have been bamboozled by Rishi’s slightly botched delivery.

Or possibly it felt more like an ambition than a pledge – and anyway, the man has hiked taxes more than any other Chancellor in recent history.

When Miss Reeves stood for her response, it became apparent to all that she’d prepared a few wisecracks. It was like the start of a dinner party when the kitchen-averse hostess announces she’s had a stab at making souffle. The gags Rachel served up collapsed in just the same way.

Rishi was ‘Ted Heath with an Instagram account’. Eh? Then there was a lengthy attempt to draw parallels between Rishi’s statement and Alice in Wonderland. Or ‘Alice in Sunak-land’ as Reeves put it.

Boris turned quizzically to his backbenchers as if to say: ‘What is she on about?’

The only laughter came from shadow justice minister Steve Reed, who repeatedly walloped his thigh in delight at Rachel’s gags. Such loyalty should carry him far.

As for Rishi, he simply stared down into his phone, expressionless.

No doubt still digesting all those terrifying figures he’s had to compute.

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