Rishi Sunak hits a bum note with musicians and his retraining quiz is only good for laughs – Aidan Smith

The winner of this year’s Britain’s Got Talent is a 46-year-old piano-playing comedian who sang about life under lockdown.

Tuesday, 13th October 2020, 7:00 am
One of Gordon Brown's favourite bands, the Arctic Monkeys, probably don't need to retrain but if they did, the UK Government's retraining quiz might offer little more than laughs about its suggestions
One of Gordon Brown's favourite bands, the Arctic Monkeys, probably don't need to retrain but if they did, the UK Government's retraining quiz might offer little more than laughs about its suggestions

Stuffing his songs with mentions of loo-roll shortages, Colonel Tom Moore and the line “We’ll remember that we were strong/When McDonalds was closed for so very long” earned Jon Courtenay £250,000 so you could say that Covid has worked for him.

But what about those for whom 23 March was the day the music died? No gigs since, and just when it seemed as if the conversation had begun to happen about how musicians might, just might, be able to survive the pandemic, along comes a tough new crackdown.

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Covid-19: Don’t leave Scottish culture at back of lockdown queue – Brian Ferguson

Never mind, they can just retrain. Ditch the guitars and do something else. This seemed to be what Rishi Sunak was suggesting, to a chorus of disapproval from the arts community. It jarred all right, not least because Sunak – Dishy Rishi, who’d gone from Mumsnet pin-up to No 10 stick-on – hadn’t previously made a misstep, unlike some of the Cabinet clodhoppers.

Denial was swift and insistent: No no, this wasn’t a disavowal of musicians or a purge on them like in Nazi Germany when books were burned. Sunak was simply stressing that no jobs were bulletproof, that new careers were something many might have to consider. Musicians, those delicate flowers, could not be excluded.

Canoodling to the xx

Well, he still struck a bum note. How could he have avoided this – emphasise how much he loved music, maybe reel off favourite bands? Like favourite football teams, politicians often come unstuck here, and both David Cameron (revealing how he wife Samantha liked to canoodle to the xx) and Gordon Brown (disclosing how he leapt out of bed, yanked off his Wee Willy Winkie hat and attacked each new day with the cold shower-and-porridge accompaniment of the Arctic Monkeys) laid themselves open to much teasing.

Rightly or wrongly, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has come in for some stick over the UK Government's retraining guide from musicians in particular (Picture: Leon Neal/PA Wire)

Okay, so perhaps Sunak, to counter accusations of philistinism, could have conceded that while the Government’s track-and-trace system to aid the Covid struggle, along with other initiatives fanfared with much bluster and bragging, still had some way to go to reach their intended target, British musicianship was already “world-beating”. That might have helped his case.

Or, to head off Liam Gallagher dubbing him a “little t**d”, he could have emphasised the importance of music to the well-being and indeed survival of the nation during lockdown. How it lifted people’s spirits, how it stopped them going crackers, how it was their only friend. He could have included actors in this for all the telly dramas we watched during those long weeks stuck indoors, although presumably they don’t escape the possibility that they, too, might have to jack it in and seek alternative employment.

Motorsport engineer was a surprise

One thing Sunak definitely should have done, though, was kill the Government’s retraining quiz stone dead. It should never have got into the public domain where it’s been heavily ridiculed, by musicians and everyone else.

Have you tried it yet? I wasn’t going to enrol, thinking this might trivialise the plight of anyone actually needing to find a new career because the old one had been wiped out by Covid. But nothing trivialises this more than the quiz itself.

First off, you’re asked, or challenged: “I am comfortable telling people what they need to do.” Well, I’m comfortable telling Rishi Sunak what he needs to do, so from the five options I chose “Strongly Agree”.

Elsewhere there’s “I think I am a competitive person”, “I like to help other people” and so on. It’s all quite woolly and non-specific. I thought I might be asked about the awards I’ve won in my current job (one I want to keep, just in case the editor gets any funny ideas), hobbies (to which the answer is always “skiing”) and the classic: “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”

So what does Gov.UK suggest a journalist of more years than he cares to remember might do next? Given that a playwright trying the quiz was invited to retrain in manufacturing and a poet was pointed towards boxing, I wasn’t hopeful of seeing “world king” turn up among my options or “holding midfielder for a Leith-based football club” or even “prog-rock drummer’s roadie” (a vital position, ELP’s sticksman used to work with 2.5 tons of kit).

Still, “motorsport engineer” was a surprise, but not as big a one as “IT security coordinator”, while “land and property valuer and auctioneer” came as a shock. I fail to see how replying “it depends” six times leads there, or indeed anywhere.

Musos valuing property?

I then tried the quiz as if I was a musician – not Ed Sheeran with his £200 million or his “Sheeranville” estate with its own pub, pond and church but one on his uppers right now. In response to “I like to make decisions quickly” I put “strongly disagree” because you can’t hurry art. So what new job do you think came back? Land and property valuer and auctioneer.

I’ve only ever had this job and am probably being quite thick but what does one of them actually do? It sounds quite, er, Tory, and although there’s a showman aspect I’m not sure too many musos would fancy it, no matter how poverty-stricken they are.

Despite Sunak’s backtracking, musicians believe – rightly – that little is being done to help them. And they worry that in the post-Covid world only rich kids will be able to indulge themselves in music, a trend happening already.

That quiz? If you get bored of Cluedo in the next lockdown, it might produce some laughs. The last word goes to Rab Noakes, a folkie for more than half a century, who’s tweeted in despair: “I’m 73, dodgy hip, tonsillar cancer and I forget why I come into the kitchen. All my gigs have evaporated, @RishiSunak – any suggestions for retraining …?”

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