With the country hurtling towards the worst economic recession ever, bringing about mass unemployment and countless business bankruptcies, Chancellor Rishi Sunak gave us a sliver of good news yesterday. He handed out vast sums of government money to the likes of Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin in the form of a targeted temporary VAT cut and a public subsidy of a tenner a head every time we eat out in selected Wetherspoons pubs. To be fair, other pubs and restaurants will also get free money to allow us to eat cheaply Mondays to Wednesdays in August. But here’s a thing: there is no such thing as government money. It’s our money.
A mask free Sunak added to the ‘fun’ by having a photo opportunity in a branch of Wagamama yesterday afternoon, pretending to be a waiter, delivering meals to unsuspecting diners. The same Sunak who announced last week that he “couldn’t wait to go back to the pub” even though he doesn’t drink. Anyone who thinks ‘eat out to help out’ is anything more than a gimmick probably needs urgent psychiatric help. Send me a note if you need a decent therapist.
It says much for the state of this country that the government is prioritising pubs and restaurants above everything else. Schools? Nah – children can wait until September when hopefully something will turn up. The continuation of free parking for frontline NHS staff? Nah – we can’t afford that if we’re going to let people get a half-price Big Mac. And those millions of people who have had to exist on next to nothing for four months – people like freelancers, the ‘wrong’ type of self-employed people; you know the sort – are forgotten, maybe deliberately ignored by a government that seems to be more about crowd-pleasing announcements than sensible economic decisions.
The idea from central government is that we should be out on the piss, as well as over-eating high fat, high calorie junk food in order to save the economy. Boris Johnson wants the ‘bustle’ to return by making it very clear that COVID-19 has gone away, something which his government knows isn’t true, but everything they do, like scrapping the daily press conference, is designed to make it feel it has. Then, the whole country can return to normal and we live happily ever after. However, the possibility that this could all go tits up is very real.
As we have noted before, the former prime minister Harold McMillan was once asked what in politics scared him most. “Events, dear boy. Events”, by which he meant the unexpected. In this instance, there are all manner of potential events that could make the government strategy unravel, the biggest of which would be a ‘second wave’ of the virus. In deepest, darkest winter, which to my mind begins on 1st September, we will all be indoors again. It appears likely that the virus is not particularly effective in the outdoors because there don’t appear to have been any spikes in transmission rates during the #BLM protests and the beach invasions. A second, probably much harder, wave of cases would wreck the Chancellor’s plans, inflicting yet more damage on a wrecked economy. If the first wave of COVID-19 has killed off many daytime Wetherspoons customers, the second could do for many of the evening ones.
To my economically uneducated eye, it appeared like Sunak was tinkering at the edges. There was obviously good stuff in his package of measures but at the end I felt, ‘Is this it?’ I mean, I like a pub meal or a Nandos as much as any man or woman, but will this prevent mass job losses at Rolls Royce or Airbus?
Plainly, Sunak, having enjoyed the best education money can buy at super elite Winchester College and Oxford University, probably has a tighter grasp of economics than I do, so perhaps if millions pile into their local boozer for a reduced price pie and mash all our problems will be over and we will ‘bounce back’. I’m not so sure, myself, particularly given that Sunak for all his plus points was appointed to do as Dominic Cummings demanded. Yesterday’s budget – for that’s what it was – will have been run past countless focus groups by Cummings because that’s how he works. So maybe there’s far more to the eye, or perhaps far less, than there is on first sight.
We rarely eat out anyway, but if we do it it will be more likely to be at an independent pub or restaurant and not a chain. It certainly won’t be at a Wetherspoons and, rather unkindly, when the tsunami of failed businesses comes along, I hope Tim Martin’s pubs will be the first to be swept away.