Sunak Faces Tax-Cut Row as Conference Gets Underway: Tory Latest

Rishi Sunak’s hopes of using the Conservative annual conference to unite his party ahead of a general election suffered an early setback, as Tory demands for immediate tax cuts put the premier on the back foot before the event is properly underway.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak’s hopes of using the Conservative annual conference to unite his party ahead of a general election suffered an early setback, as Tory demands for immediate tax cuts put the premier on the back foot before the event is properly underway.

During an at times tetchy interview with the BBC, Sunak said that while he’d like to cut taxes, his priority remains to get inflation down. He also declined again to commit to building the northern leg of the UK’s flagship HS2 rail project to Manchester, where the Tory conference is taking place.

Sunak’s Conservatives trail the opposition Labour Party by double digits in opinion polls, and the prime minister is under pressure to come up with policy plans to win over voters. But tax wasn’t the only source of tension on Sunday, as former Home Secretary Priti Patel labeled incumbent Suella Braverman of seeking attention with her recent comments on immigration.

Read More: The Tories Auditioning for Sunak’s Job If He Can’t Save His Own

Key Developments, Stories:

  • Sunak spoke to BBC in Manchester ahead of conference
  • BBC word cloud shows voters’ most common view of Sunak is “rich”
  • Senior Tories including Truss, Patel say taxes should come down
  • Unions Protest Against Tory Conference With a Week of Strikes
  • Sunak Says Filling UK Potholes as Pressing as Pricey HS2 Project

(All times UK)

Pressure Builds on Sunak Over ECHR (11:40 a.m.)

In her US speech (see 11:20 a.m.), Home Secretary Suella Braverman also called for the reform of international treaties including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, as she tries to reduce asylum claims in the UK. 

Braverman has long been an advocate of withdrawing from the ECHR unless it changes, after the Strasbourg court that oversees it blocked the UK from beginning deportation flights to Rwanda. That policy is also being challenged in the UK Supreme Court, and if the ruling doesn’t go the government’s way, Tory pressure to withdraw from the convention will be immense.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch — who like Braverman is on the right of the party — said leaving the ECHR is “definitely something that needs to be on the table.” The problem for Sunak is that doing so would likely damage the UK’s international reputation. An immediate issue is that the ECHR is written into the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in 1998.

Patel Accuses Braverman of ‘Attention’ Seeking (11:20 a.m.)

In a sign that it’s not only on tax where Tory tensions are running high, former Home Secretary Priti Patel hit out at Suella Braverman’s current performance in the job, saying that her speech last week in the US was “to get attention.”

“Speeches are not substitute for delivery,” Patel told Sky News on Sunday. The intervention comes as the government struggles to deliver on Rishi Sunak’s pledge to stop asylum seekers from arriving in boats from France.

In the speech last week, Braverman said being gay or a woman should not entitle people to asylum, later adding that some people “purport” to be gay to “game the system.” She also said multiculturalism in the UK has failed. The speech angered colleagues in the party, who saw it as an unsubtle pitch to grassroots Tories ahead of a future leadership bid.

Sunak Rejects Suggestion He Lacks Mandate (10:45 a.m.)

Rishi Sunak’s new slogan for the Conservative Party, “Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future,” has opened the prime minister up to accusations that he doesn’t have an electoral mandate to — as the prime minister himself put it — change the trajectory of the UK. Critics point to his watering down of the UK’s green agenda and wavering on the HS2 project as evidence he’s moving away from the 2019 manifesto on which the Tories were elected.

“I have a good sense about what the British people’s priorities are,” Sunak told the BBC when asked directly who voted for his agenda. “I’m doing what I believe is right for the long term of our country. I am prepared to change things and I’m going to do things differently.”

The issue is unlikely to go away, especially if he rolls out more policies immediately rather than including them in the next manifesto for the Tories to campaign on. Sunak was the choice of Tory MPs following Liz Truss’s chaotic 49-day administration last year. But he was earlier rejected by fee-paying members of the Conservative Party, who opted for Truss, and the last time British voters had their say was when Boris Johnson was prime minister.

Sunak Again Refuses to Comment on HS2 (9:55 a.m.)

Rishi Sunak’s government has spent days fending off questions about the future of the HS2 high-speed rail link, in particular reports ministers are considering scrapping the northern leg between Birmingham and Manchester. On Sunday, the premier again refused to say if it will go ahead.

“I’m not going to comment on further speculation, but what I can tell you we are doing is absolutely committed to levelling up across this country,” he told the BBC. He also said connections between northern cities and transport within them should be prioritized, another hint that a change to HS2 may be coming.

Questions about HS2 have emerged as Sunak has begun talking about adopting a more pro-motorist agenda, which Transport Secretary Mark Harper is expected to announce in his keynote speech on Monday.

Read More: Sunak Says Filling UK Potholes as Pressing as Pricey HS2 Project

Hunt: Tories Need ‘Credible Answer’ on Tax (9:50 a.m.)

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly rejected calls from his fellow Conservative MPs for immediate tax cuts, saying the government needs to focus on reducing inflation and boosting growth. Still, in an interview with the Times newspaper on Saturday, he acknowledged that a party that hoped to win the next election would need a “credible answer” to the question of whether taxes would rise forever.

Sunak Says He’s Focused on Inflation (9:30 a.m.)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, responding to a call from one of his own Cabinet ministers to cut taxes before the general election (see 8:35 a.m.), said he is focused on reducing UK inflation.

“I’m a Conservative, of course I want to cut taxes. The best tax cuts that I can deliver to the British people right now is to halve inflation,” Sunak told the BBC on Sunday. “It’s a tax that impacts the poorest people the most.”

But his refusal to commit to cutting taxes before the vote is likely to worry many members of his party, and heap more pressure on his Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt ahead of his fiscal statement in the autumn. 


Gove Backs Tax Cuts on ‘Work’ (8:35 a.m.)

Veteran Cabinet member and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove added his voice to the chorus of Conservatives calling for tax cuts before the next election. But he said he favored tax cuts on “work,” rather than on inheritance, as been under discussion in Downing Street.

“My own view is that wherever possible, we should cut taxes on work,” Gove, who oversees the government’s efforts to “level up” less prosperous areas, told Sky News. “In other words, we should incentivize people to work harder. We should make sure that they’re better rewarded for the enterprise, the effort, the endeavor that they put in.”

Pressed for specifics, Gove said it was up to the chancellor and the premier to decide tax policy. While he didn’t echo calls of some MPs for immediate relief, he said he “would like to see the tax burden reduced before the next election.”

Tories Call for Tax Cuts Ahead of Election (Earlier)

Tax is a major source of tension in Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party, with many of his Members of Parliament hoping the government will reduce the burden on struggling Britons ahead of the next election. In a conference speech on Monday, former Prime Minister Liz Truss will call for corporation tax cuts and warn that millionaires are leaving the UK. Former Home Secretary Priti Patel has also weighed in as the conference gets underway. 

Tory MPs fear that the rising tax burden will cost them votes, following analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank which found that taxes will have risen by about £3,500 per household since the last general election.

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