Tory Latest: Hunt Plans Civil Service Cuts in Policy-Thin Speech

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said he would cut the UK’s civil service to pre-pandemic levels but his speech at the Conservative Party conference was otherwise devoid of eye-catching policy.

(Bloomberg) — Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said he would cut the UK’s civil service to pre-pandemic levels but his speech at the Conservative Party conference was otherwise devoid of eye-catching policy.

Many of Hunt’s colleagues want tax cuts before the vote expected next year, but the chancellor has warned the UK has no fiscal headroom to do so. Instead he leaned more on rhetoric, warning it would be a mistake to bet against Britain. Meanwhile Rishi Sunak’s office denied reports the premier is set to scale back the flagship HS2 rail project.

Key Developments, Stories:

  • Sunak’s office denies reports he’s set to scale back HS2
  • Shapps says West should stick together on Ukraine
  • Sunak Faces Cabinet Split on Taking UK Out of Human Rights Pact
  • UK Transport Chief Slams ‘Sinister’ Anti-Congestion Measures

(All times UK)

Keegan: Schools Should Ban Cell Phones (4:30 p.m.)

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said she would introduce new government guidance to back headteachers in banning mobile phone use during the school day, including break times, to tackle disruptive behavior.

The government will consider legislating if schools fail to implement the guidance, Keegan told the Tory conference. France, Italy and Portugal have already brought in a ban, the Department for Education said. (Emily Ashton)

Stride: Be Proud of Pensions Triple-Lock (3:30 p.m.)

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said the Conservative Party should be “proud” of its treatment of pensioners, including maintaining the triple-lock on retirement benefits, amid speculation it will be watered down.

Stride pointed to the government’s “continued commitment to the triple lock,” without saying if he will maintain the pledge next year. Bloomberg has reported the government is considering changes to the way the triple-lock for state pensions is calculated next year by stripping out a one-time impact of bonuses paid to public-sector workers to end a labor dispute. (Ellen Milligan)

Hunt: IFS ‘Wrong’ on UK as Higher Tax Economy (3:15 p.m.)

In his speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said the Institute for Fiscal Studies was incorrect when it said the UK is heading for a “decisive and permanent shift” to a higher tax economy.

“They are wrong,” he said. “We need a more productive state, not a bigger state.” On Sunday, cabinet minister Michael Gove also took aim at the IFS during the government’s morning broadcast round. (Joe Mayes)

Mitchell Warns Against ECHR Withdrawal (3 p.m.)

Andrew Mitchell, who attends the UK cabinet as development minister, warned against pulling Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights, further highlighting the schism in Rishi Sunak’s top team.

Leaving the ECHR “would certainly pull a piece of thread out of the international system,” Mitchell told Times Radio on Monday. He said it’s “unlikely” Britain will seek to withdraw from the convention.

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat also told Times Radio: “Don’t throw around words unless you can answer the questions.” (Alex Morales)

Read More: Sunak Faces Cabinet Split on Taking UK Out of Human Rights Pact

Sunak’s Office Denies Reports HS2 Link Scrapped (2:50 pm)

Media including Sky News and the Guardian newspaper have reported that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester spur of the HS2 high-speed rail link. The Department of Transport has prepared alternative projects which could be funded from the money saved, Sky News reported, without saying where it obtained the information.

But a spokesperson for Sunak’s office denied the reports, saying “No final decisions have been taken” on the northern leg of HS2. (Kitty Donaldson)

Read More: Sunak Refuses to Commit to UK HS2 Rail Project as Costs Rise

Hunt’s Team Fleshes Out Civil Service Plan (2:40 p.m.)

A spokesman for Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt has briefed the numbers underpinning government plans to cut the numbers of civil servants. The civil service numbers about 457,000 at present, and was projected to increase by 40,000 next year, he said.

Instead, the government aims to bring the total to about 394,000, in line with its pre-pandemic size, according to the spokesman. Ministers don’t plan any compulsory redundancies, but will conduct an audit of staff in diversity and equality roles, he said. (Joe Mayes)

Hunt Freezes Civil Service Expansion (2.20 p.m.)

The UK will freeze the expansion of the civil service and put in place a plan to reduce its size to pre-pandemic levels, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said in his keynote Tory Party conference speech, a move he said will save 1 billion pounds next year.

“I won’t lift that freeze until we have a proper plan, not just for the civil service, but for all public sector productivity,” Hunt said in Manchester. Hunt and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are hoping to find more fiscal headroom in his upcoming fiscal statement next month, in order to make way for pre-election tax cuts next year. (Ellen Milligan)

Liz Truss Still Major Draw for True-Blue Tories (1 p.m.)

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s speech on the sidelines of the Conservative Party conference was standing-room only as she urged the government to cut corporation tax to stimulate growth. In better news for Rishi Sunak, she did welcome his decision to water down the government’s green agenda.

“We have made some progress, we’ve delayed the ban on boilers, we’ve delayed the ban on cars but we need to do more,” she said. “I’m calling on the chancellor at the autumn statement to put corporation tax back down to 19%.”

Sunak will likely be less thrilled about the loud cheering in the audience — which included former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage — when the event moderator said that unlike the prime minister, Truss had a mandate from Tory party members. Sunak was the choice of Tory MPs to replace Truss last year, but fee-paying activists were not given a say. (Kitty Donaldson)

Manchester Mayor Urges Tories Not to Scrap HS2 (1 p.m.)

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, a Labour politician, warned the Conservatives not to “pull the plug” on northern England, after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repeatedly refused to deny reports that he’ll scale back or delay the HS2 high speed rail link.

Burnham said his message is: “Do not scrap it, do not pull the plug on the north of England, it feels cynical, to me, it feels as though they’re building to a decision that they’ve already pretty much made.” (Alex Morales)

Long Queue to See 49-Day Ex-PM Truss (12:10 p.m.)

Hundreds of people were queuing to see former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s speech on the sidelines of the Conservative Party conference — the largest attendance for a so-called fringe event. 

She is expected to call for lower taxes including on corporations, a theme which featured prominently in her disastrous seven-week premiership last year. Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage is also in attendance. (Kitty Donaldson)

Harper Says Tories Are ‘Pro-Car’ (11:40 a.m.)

Transport Secretary Mark Harper delivered one of the more eye-raising speeches of the Conservative conference so far. Setting out what he called a “pro-car” agenda, he also said the government would be boosting bus services and cracking down on local councils’ ability to fine motorists.

“For most people, the most important mode of transport remains the car, the van, the lorry, the motorbike,” Harper said.

Harper also referred to so-called 15-minute cities, a method of urban design that seeks to keep services in walking distance, but warning they could be used to limit transport choices. “We stand for freedom to travel how we want,” he said. “What is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you can go to the shops.” (Stuart Biggs)

Coutinho Attacks Labour’s ‘Toxic’ Green Plan (11:15 a.m.)

Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho defended Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent watering down of the government’s green agenda, calling it a more popular approach among voters than the opposition Labour Party’s approach to climate change and the environment.

“Their plans are toxic and would collapse support for net zero,” Coutinho told the conference. That is an echo of Sunak’s own line, and like the prime minister, Coutinho also blamed what she called eco-zealots for dividing the country on net zero. 

Like the other speakers, she took aim at Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is a vegetarian, as part of a jibe about how she said environmentalists want to limit the eating habits of the general public (Joe Mayes)

‘New Conservatives’ Want Tax, Immigration Cuts (10:45 a.m.)

Thirteen MPs from the “New Conservatives” have put their name to a “Rally for the Manifesto” that volunteers are handing to delegates on Monday.

They’re making five demands for Tory electoral promises at the next national vote, widely expected next year. They are: replacing existing human rights and equalities laws with a new framework, cutting taxes for families and businesses, halving visas issued to migrants, cutting those eligible for student loans and boosting apprenticeships, and banning “gender ideology” in schools.

The MPs named on the leaflet advertising the event include former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, former party Chairman Jake Berry, former Home Secretary Priti Patel and former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg. (Alex Morales)

Shapps: World Should ‘Stick Together’ on Ukraine (10:30 a.m.)

UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps played down a move by the US Congress to pass a spending bill without funding for Ukraine to avoid a government shutdown, dismissing suggestions there were cracks in the West’s support.

“I feel very passionately the world needs to stick together on this,” he told a panel at Conservative Party conference. Pressed by Bloomberg, he added: “I don’t think we should over-read into the negotiations that have to take place in order to get a single piece of the budget through.”

The potential return of Donald Trump to the White House next year would not necessarily result in the “worst case scenario” of the US cutting its support for Ukraine, Shapps told the event. Trump has a “big issue with China and is obviously concerned about Taiwan,” he said. “Many experts would suggest that you don’t want to accidentally send the wrong message to China, that force is kind of OK to use.” (Emily Ashton)

Donelan: UK Should Lead on AI Safety (9.20 a.m.)

The UK wants to lead on artificial intelligence safety in order to “grip the risks” that the technology presents, Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told a panel at Conservative Party conference.

Donelan said she wants to ensure the UK is “regulating to innovate” in order to provide clarity and certainty to industry so they don’t have to answer to various different regulators.

“The rate at which its developing is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Donelan said. “That will offer incredible opportunities for mankind but also presents big risks.” (Ellen Milligan)

Hunt Wants More Pension Investment in Growth Firms (8 a.m.)

Asked on Bloomberg TV about the potential for a government-backed growth fund, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said he wants more pension pots to invest in startups and tech firms.

“We want to make it easier for big pension funds to invest in growth companies,” he said. Britain has the largest technology sector outside China and the US and the aim is to maintain that position, he added.

Bloomberg reported over the weekend the UK government is considering copying the Canada Growth Fund to help channel investment into green technology and fast-growing businesses in a bid to boost the economy. (Joe Mayes)

Read More: UK Considers Copy of Canada’s Growth Fund to Boost Investment

Stride to Target ‘Deadbeat Dads’ Over Child Support (8 a.m.)

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride will announce a crackdown on “deadbeat dads” who refuse to pay child maintenance as part of a package of welfare reforms designed to encourage more people to work. (Joe Mayes)

Hunt: No Fiscal Headroom For Tax Cuts (7:55 a.m.)

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said the public finances don’t currently allow for tax cuts and he’s waiting for new figures from Britain’s spending watchdog.

“There’s no fiscal headroom,” Hunt said in a Bloomberg TV interview in Manchester. Hunt also said the government is “turning the tide” on inflation and doesn’t want to undermine those efforts through tax cuts that would increase spending in the economy. (Joe Mayes)

Hunt Ducks Questions on Future of HS2 Rail (7:35 a.m.)

Another key topic at the Tory conference in Manchester is whether the government is preparing to scrap the planned northern leg of the flagship HS2 high-speed rail project to the city from Birmingham.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt batted away questions on the future of the UK’s HS2 rail project on Sky News, saying an announcement will be made at the “appropriate time.” But he also said that costs for the project are ten times higher than building high speed rail in France.

He later told the BBC he took a British Airways flight from London to Manchester for the conference, because his scheduled train was canceled due to strikes. (Joe Mayes)

Read More; Sunak Refuses to Commit to UK HS2 Rail Project as Costs Rise

–With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.

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