It’s Autumn 1993 and three fateful journeys are beginning.
In the first, I am celebrating my 18th birthday. Newly enfranchised, I am beginning what will become a 26-and-a-half-year run of not uttering a single word of praise for a Tory politician, let alone voting for one.
It is also the first of 325 consecutive months in which I will lend money to an organisation called NatWest Bank. (There might also be some borrowing.)
At the same time, a well-mannered 13-year-old is, for the first time, skipping through the medieval cloisters of Winchester College, the all-boys’ boarding school.
This knobbly kneed future Head Boy is called Rishi Sunak and he is beginning the most exciting of our three journeys, an exhilarating rise to the role of Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Exchequer – via a First in PPE at Oxford and a career in investment banking.
These three tales will remain almost entirely unconnected for decades – until they collide in an explosion of destiny barely a month into Sunak’s new role in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Cabinet.
It’s March 17th, 2020, and Twitter’s population of Leftish women and gay men are lamenting their pledges to “never kiss a Tory”.
The swashbuckling young Chancellor is in the middle of an assured speech about how the Government will protect workers and business owners from the calamitous effects of the closure of our economy by Coronavirus.
In a move that Marx himself might have dismissed as “a bit Commie for my taste”, Sunak is announcing a £350 billion bailout that will see employees “furloughed” and paid from general taxation. Huge grants are to be made available, with tax and rates payments delayed.
A desk-bound Sunak, in an immaculately-pressed hoodie, is improving his offer by the hour.
No-one doubts the heroism of the Chancellor’s Odyssean response to emergency, not the slack-jawed reporters in the room, nor the new fans among his huge TV audience; not his rapt disciples back at HM Treasury, nor the admiring colleagues on his flanks who seem twice his age.
Meanwhile, I am praising a Tory politician for the first time in 26-and-a-half years because he has forced my bank suddenly into my service.
What has caught my eye is a rescue scheme for businesses, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
And as the days pass, we are fed pictures of a desk-bound Sunak in an immaculately-pressed hoodie, improving his offer by the hour.
We are promised a 12-month repayment holiday and a 12-month interest freeze. It will be administered by 40 of the most popular lenders, including my own, NatWest. Businesses can access up to £5 million in term loans, overdrafts, invoice finance or asset finance.
No personal guarantee of any form will be required for facilities below £250,000. And the Government will provide lenders with an 80% guarantee on loans, giving banks the confidence to lend.
Three days after Sunak’s momentous speech, Coronavirus has sunk its teeth deep into the jugular of my business, Foco. I have lost 75% of my regular monthly revenue and furloughed staff. My new business pipeline is decimated and agreed projects cancelled.
The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme looks good – really good. It offers a safety net, ensuring I could re-employ staff as the furlough scheme ends and recruit new staff in the recovery. It would help me ramp up marketing, develop new business pitches and pay rent and other bills. Yes, the scheme looks good.
But it is too good to be true.
It’s April 7th, 2020. An all-too-familiar cocktail of stress, anger and blistering frustration broils in my gut as NatWest forces its four dreary bars of muzak into my ears for what must be the 320th time during my 117 minutes on hold.
Eventually, a woman asks me what’s up. I explain, yet again, that I have been unable to apply for a “CBIL” online. The system insists I am not a key signatory to my own business account, even though I am the only signatory.
I tell the woman that another woman – my “designated case manager” – assured me falsely four days earlier that the problem had been fixed and has not answered a single email since then.
I don’t bother to complain that a man falsely promised me a call-back “within four days” when I first encountered this hurdle on March 23rd.
I don’t remind her that another man made the same false promise a week later.
I don’t tell her about the six or more hours I’ve spent listening to that muzak.
I don’t admit that I died inside a few days ago.
It’s April 9th, 2020. I’m reading City AM. “Exclusive: Just 2,000 UK firms given coronavirus business loans,” comes the headline. It continues: “Just 2,022 loans have been made to the UK’s small and medium-sized firms through the government’s coronavirus business lending scheme. There have been around 300,000 applications so far. That means a paltry 0.65 per cent of enquiries have resulted in coronavirus business loans.”
It’s today and I have no idea how my story ends, whether or how a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan will become available to me or the six million other small businesses in the UK.
In happier times, these firms paid £41bn in salaries. Owners often risked life savings or remortgaged their own houses to start their adventure. They paid taxes on profits and on dividends throughout their business lives.
We don’t want hand-outs; we simply want access to lending so we can re-employ our staff and fulfil our destinies as vertebrae in the backbone of the recovery when it comes.
And where does Sunak’s story end? This well-meaning Millennial minister, who married into a billionaire family, is touted as a future Prime Minister.
But is Mr Nice-Guy destined for little more than a series of Strictly Come Dancing, having proven to be a purveyor of an empty, posturing speech?