Chris Lloyd watches Chancellor Rishi Sunak step out from the backstage keyboards for his big moment in the spotlight

GREAT double acts, be they politicians, comedians or Pet Shop Boys, always consist of one flamboyant front man who spins daringly across the stage while the other is a quieter, more sober character who plays all the difficult keyboard parts in the shadows.

In terms of comedians, Rishi Sunak plays the Ernie Wise role to Boris Johnson’s wise-cracking Eric Morecambe. If they were the Pet Shop Boys, Mr Johnson would be Neil Tennant singing It’s A Sin while Mr Sunak would take the part of the one whose name no one remembers, doing all the technical stuff with his cap pulled down.

At times this afternoon, it seemed that Mr Sunak was supporting a charismatic Prime Minister by spending like he was Gordon Brown.

With the economy performing better than predicted in March, and with National Insurance rises coming early next year, he found £150bn to give every Government department a little more.

Budgets often begin to unravel in the days following their delivery, but this one’s real test will be early next year. Inflation, Mr Sunak said, will rise to at least four per cent, which will eat into his largesse. Then will come the public sector pay reviews: will the unions settle for one or two per cent when inflation is double that? Soon the additional money will have disappeared.

It was a very political Budget, as the Chancellor tried to differentiate the Johnson/Sunak double act from the Cameron/Osborne partnership that had gone before. He turned his back on their age of austerity by his continued spending, but also through pointedly noting that he was restoring per pupil funding in schools to 2010 levels.

He even began to recreate the SureStarts, which were one of the very best policies from the Blair/Brown years, where children’s centres became the focal points of communities. Sadly, 1,000 have shut in the last decade of austerity, and Mr Sunak’s £300m Start for Life money will only create 75 new family hubs.

Mr Sunak also wanted to ensure that, because of the removal of the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift, the Conservatives were not being seen once again as the nasty party. He created a new “taper”, which allows people who work to keep more of their benefits. It may appease some of the critics, but there was nothing for those unable to work or those dependent on someone unable to work.

There were lots of little pots for lots of worthwhile causes, from potholes to a new numeracy programme to saving pubs and the high street.

There was lots of talk of levelling up, although this region’s only specific mention was a £310m boost to Tees Valley transport. As March’s Budget had focussed almost exclusively on the region, with the relocation of the Treasury to Darlington and the creation of the freeport on the Tees, it was perhaps selfish to expect such personalised treatment a second time and so it was Stoke-on-Trent that was singled out for its reward for helping the red wall to crumble.

But for all the little pots for levelling up, there were curious omissions: we don’t know the fate of the second stage of HS2 into Leeds, and there was nothing on the Northern Powerhouse Rail.

The COP26 summit is dominating the agenda to such an extent that the Government has been forced into a big U-turn on water companies’ raw sewage discharge, but there was very little green in the Budget. It would have been ideal timing to start financial encouragement to move households away from gas guzzling boilers, but the only measure with an environment twinge was to remove Air Passenger Duty in a bid to encourage more internal flights.

But just as it seemed that Mr Sunak was spending in a way reminiscent of Gordon Brown, there came a juddering philosophical passage in his speech. He said he didn’t like taxing and spending so much, but it was because of the pandemic.

“But now, we have a choice,” he said. “Do we want to live in a country where the response to every question is: “what is the government going to do about it”?

“Where every time prices rise, every time a company gets in trouble, every time some new challenge emerges, the answer is always: the taxpayer must pay?

“Or do we choose to recognise that Government has limits.”

Mr Johnson is a great song and dance man who is quite happy to spend big on flagship projects, but Mr Sunak prefers a different tune with a melody based on low taxation.

Should the double act ever break up, Mr Sunak may well see himself stepping out as a soloist whose main themes are music to traditional Tory ears.