Chancellor Rishi Sunak is on the charm offensive before delivering a Budget that the principal U.K. restaurant trade body has described the “most important in living memory.” Having over the last 12 months waited tables in Wagamama and collected lattes in Pret, Sunak kicked off a new series of “In Conversations” with the notorious, foul-mouthed bully and chef Gordon Ramsay. The topic of their discussion? How the pandemic has affected the hospitality sector.
While this may be the latest in a long line of populist choices designed to hit the masses and collect PR coins ahead of a Budget that will no doubt involve Sunak making a few “hard choices,” the early reaction from the London restaurant industry suggests he might have had a conversation with someone else.
Darjeeling Express chef Asma Khan tweeted “The shouty chef in his new avatar as game show host is not who you need to speak to Rishi,” to which Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner responded: “it is that killer combination of tone deaf and chronically self-important.” Elsewhere, Sunday Times and CODE’s Lisa Markwell was even more cutting: “neither a leader nor an expert. Could the Chancellor not have found someone other than a merciless self publicist in an industry that employs millions?” she wrote on Twitter.
Naturally, the stage direction from the Treasury ensured Ramsay “praised the government for backing the beleaguered hospitality industry — describing the support dished up by Rishi Sunak during the pandemic as the best in the world” but there were plenty who saw straight through it.
It is that killer combination of tone deaf and chronically self-important.— Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1) February 19, 2021
Hearing “first-hand” from a supposed industry leader “about the challenges of the pandemic” from a chef and international megastar who, when he’s not been TikTok-ing with his kids, has been ghosting redundant colleagues, has caught the ire of actual leaders whose acquaintance with the brutal realities of the pandemic have been a day-to-day occurrence, but will likely matter little in the long-run. For Sunak, this is damage-limitation in the short-term; brand-building in the long.
Ramsay piles on the compliments, telling the chancellor that the chancellor’s interventions have “been instrumental in maintaining some positivity across the sector.” At this stage, it is beyond question that the Treasury’s interventions have helped prevent a total collapse of the hospitality industry over the last 12 months. What is also true is that Sunak is the chancellor in a country where the hospitality industry is the third largest employer. The government cannot afford for the hospitality industry to tank. So they won’t let that happen.
More, government interventions that have propped up the industry have not always been delivered effectively. At various stages throughout the pandemic, not least right now, the delay in announcing intervention until its necessity is beyond doubt has served to compound, not alleviate, uncertainty for businesses and workers who’ve had little else but uncertainty for nearly a year. This delay is caused in part, if not entirely, by Sunak’s caution over national debt at a time when borrowing money has never been so necessary nor risk-lite for governments.
Ramsay, who still “employs over 600 staff in the U.K.,” did not just praise those ends, but said the government had been “precise [...] what you’ve said you’ve stood by and delivered.”
I think as a government, we’ve been supported better than any other country I know. And secondly, you’ve been precise, what you’ve said you’ve stood by and delivered.
I think we’ve been given one of the most incredible support systems from the furlough scheme, which was instrumental in maintaining some positivity. I think you delivered beyond.
But the downside for me is that we have lost some really good restaurants that were good, but sadly, there are going to be casualties.
The chancellor, who has been told exactly what restaurants and pubs need from his Budget, told Ramsay that he was optimistic the hospitality sector would “bounce back” to life once the economy reopened.
“Economically it’s incredibly important, but also it’s that connection with people in their communities,” Sunak told Ramsay. “It just gives joy to people’s lives. It brings life to villages, towns across the country, and seeing that taken from us is incredibly sad and we have to recapture that again.”
Perhaps critically for restaurants, there was also an indication that Sunak had received the message sent by trade bodies and business owners in recent weeks, as he invited Ramsay to tout the specific benefits of the furlough scheme, VAT rate cuts and the business rates holiday, which Sweary said had been both a “massive boost” and “pivotal” for restaurants.
So what can restaurateurs actually take away from the encounter?
First, no matter how tangential Ramsay has become to the world he once signified, hospitality was the subject of Sunak’s first “in conversation” on the future of England’s economy. That is significant.
Second, the three principal support systems — furlough; VAT cuts; and business rates holidays — will be extended
Third, talk of Eat Out to Help Out 2.0 is conspicuous by its absence.
And last, Brand Sunak is in far better health than both the London restaurant industry and the U.K. economy.