It has been quite a week for Kwasi Kwarteng, the newly minted Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It kicked off on Monday with him enjoying a ringside seat at a historical event reportedly watched by up to four billion people. You know the one. How much he actually enjoyed it we’ll turn to in a minute.
His week wound up on Friday with him on his feet in the House of Commons delivering a budget, though nobody on the payroll was allowed to call it that. Instead, the government preferred the phrase Growth Plan For A New Era, which is a bit like saying Special Military Operation when you actually mean war.
This time all eyes were on him rather than on a coffin draped with a flag, though in the breakout room at the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) they may have turned down the volume on the telly or even switched channels – it was widely reported that Kwarteng had refused to let the independent public body assess the impact of the swingeing tax cuts he announced, even though the OBR had offered to provide just such a document. It wasn’t just the OBR’s nose which was out of joint. Kwarteng’s Tory colleague Mel Stride, chairman of the Treasury select committee, was none too chuffed by the lack of scrutiny either. Still, the Chancellor announced the biggest series of tax cuts since 1972 and slashed income tax for high earners, so that’s good. Isn’t it? No necessarily. Heard that sound? It’s the pound crashing.
Anyway, back to Monday and the funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth.
Referring to the business of royalty in his book The English Constitution, the Victorian journalist, essayist and polymath Walter Bagehot writes: “We must not let in daylight upon magic.” By daylight he didn’t specifically mean any muppet with a smartphone and a social media account, because even HG Wells hadn’t dreamed up that twisted scenario at the time he was writing. But it comes to the same thing.
And so the whole world was able to watch events in Westminster Abbey if it wanted to. And Tweet about it too. In large part, it did both. In the UK, some 26 million people tuned in to the coverage, turning millions of IKEA sofas into a huge, shared, real-time episode of Goggle Box, one fuelled by popcorn, Victoria sponge, Coronation Chicken sandwiches and maybe even Jemma from Southport’s Platinum Pudding-winning confection of lemon Swiss Roll and Amaretti trifle.
Bad move. Yes, it was great to see be able to see history in the making and all that. But the whole daylight + magic = people taking the p*** on social media equation had already turned King Charles into a meme after he chucked his orb out of the pram when he didn’t like the look of the inkwell on his desk. That was during the Accession Ceremony on September 10, which had never before been filmed. Come the funeral itself, that pesky daylight was at it again – only this time it was Kwasi Kwarteng who came a cropper in front of the ever watchful cameras and the even more ever watchful viewing public.
In case you missed it, he was filmed during the ceremony acting oddly and when footage people shot of said odd behaviour was posted to social media it went viral, as these things tend to. The problem is his demeanour. One clip I watched is 44 seconds long and seems to show Kwarteng chuckling, laughing and possibly talking to himself (or someone else?). In another clip, shot during the two minute silence when everybody was on the feet, he can be seen swaying, taking off his glasses and wiping his forehead.
Social media being what it is – a snarky bear bit ruled over by wannabe edgelords and vile trolls with no sense of decorum – there were some extreme explanations for his behaviour. These will not be rehashed here. Others simply found his behaviour rude and insensitive. That we can discuss.
“Nice to see Kwasi Kwarteng clearly taking a personal call at the Queens [sic] funeral and having a bit of a laugh. The chancellor can’t even show any respect at this most solemn occasion,” wrote one user. “He is acting oddly, but maybe he’s one of those people who giggles when he gets anxious,” said another. A third wrote: “It really doesn’t matter whether you’re a royalist, religious or not. Don’t go into a church pretending to care when you clearly don’t.” There were loads more along those lines. Loads more too along different lines entirely.
Why not watch for yourself and then decide? Kwarteng can be seen sitting in the back row of the choir stalls behind a Rogue’s Gallery of former Prime Ministers and their spouses (cool hat, Sam). Boris Johnson, the tousle-headed Tory king he helped to depose, is right in front of him, and nearby is Johnson’s predecessor-but-one, David Cameron. Kwarteng is almost close enough to ping the ears of fellow Old Etonians should he want to. At least he resisted that temptation – or if he didn’t, the cameras never caught it.
Standing six foot five and with a speaking voice so loud and basso profundo it brings down pigeons, Kwasi Kwarteng certainly cuts an impressive figure. But, like his friend and close confidante the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, he has a reputation for being a little peculiar. Moreover, he’s something of an odd fit for the Tories. On the one hand, his route into the Establishment party was perfectly normal. He was schooled at Eton, read history and classics at Trinity College, Cambridge where he got a first, and even went on University Challenge wearing a nerdy jumper and spectacles combo (he buzzed wrongly and quite audibly dropped the F-bomb). Then in the late 1990s he pottered off to the Daily Telegraph where he was given a column all to himself and allowed to write articles in which he (variously) castigated experts, multiculturalism and political correctness, described global warming as “conjecture” dressed up as “granite fact” and analysed the ‘nipple count’ in so-called ‘lads’ mag’ FHM. My favourite headline? It’s a toss-up between “When poems are soppy, boys get stroppy” and “Don’t go to university, make money instead”.
So far, so Boris Johnson. But Kwarteng has also written a book called Ghosts Of Empire: Britain’s Legacies In The Modern World, which is critical of empire and empire nostalgia in a way which is very un-Johnsonian and very un-Tory. He has also co-authored a book about traffic – no, me neither – and of course he was one of those putting his name to Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons For Growth And Prosperity, the now-infamous manifesto for the laugh-a-minute ***-show that is post-Brexit UK. Fellow authors included Priti Patel, Dominic Raab (remember him?) and a certain Liz Truss.
In a profile of him published in early September The Economist magazine billed him as “the most intellectually gifted chancellor since Gordon Brown” and “certainly the oddest”, a man whose “debilitating form of braininess” swings between “genius and idiocy”. This sorry episode will only add to that impression. With him in charge of the UK’s purse strings, it could be a wild ride.
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