Rishi Sunak has promised he will cut taxes now the government has achieved its pledge to halve inflation by the end of the year.
The prime minister has been under pressure from many in his party to reduce the tax burden – which currently sits at a 70-year high – ahead of the next election, and rumours have been swirling that such policies could be announced in the autumn statement on Wednesday.
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Making a speech in north London on his economic plans, Mr Sunak said his “argument has never been that we shouldn’t cut taxes – it’s been that we can only cut taxes once we have controlled inflation and debt”.
And with the change in inflation – confirmed last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to have dropped to 4.6% – it was time for the government to “begin the next phase” of its plan and “turn our attention to cutting tax”.
The prime minister did not reveal what taxes would be for the chop, but they are expected to be confirmed on Wednesday when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers his statement in the Commons.
Can the chancellor lift the gloom? Watch live coverage on Sky News of the autumn statement from 11am on Wednesday.
During his speech, Mr Sunak celebrated the fall in inflation – though it still remains more than double the Bank of England target of 2% – saying it showed “when we make a major economic commitment, we will deliver it”.
Then moving on to the big question ahead of the autumn statement, he said: “I want to cut taxes, I believe in cutting taxes, what clearer expression could there be of my governing philosophy than the belief that people, not government, make the best decisions about their money.
“But doing that responsibly is hard. We must avoid doing anything that puts at risk our progress of controlling inflation, and no matter how much we might want them to, history shows that tax cuts don’t automatically pay for themselves.
“And I can’t click my fingers and suddenly wish away all the reasons that taxes had to increase in the first place – partly because of COVID and Putin’s war in Ukraine, and partly because we want to support people to live in dignity in retirement with a decent pension and good health care which will cost more as the population ages.”
But the prime minister added: “Now that inflation has halved and our growth is stronger, meaning revenues are higher, we can begin the next phase and turn our attention to cutting tax.”
The prime minister said the government “can’t do everything at once”, and it would take “discipline” to “prioritise” what should be reduced.
However, he promised to make the reductions “in a serious, responsible way, based on fiscal rules”, adding: “Over time we can and we will cut taxes.”
Sunak’s argument has flaws – he’ll have to work hard to win it
Well, that was wild. Today, Rishi Sunak appeared to have perfected the art of the low-key big speech.
The prime minister announced tax cuts are coming right now, set out the five long-term priorities he’ll fight the election on and made his most aggressive attack on the Tory right’s belief in self-funding tax cuts.
All done on a hugely busy political day, competing with the COVID inquiry, CBI annual conference featuring the chancellor, an AI event with the deputy prime minister on the day a refreshed plan for foreign aid spending was being released and Lord Cameron’s formal arrival in the Lords.
At the heart of Sunak’s speech was an argument that having reduced inflation and debt, now everyone can share in the rewards. A prime minister – justifiably – wanting to share some of the credit for Wednesday’s tax cut announcement in the autumn statement.
This is his argument: “We could only cut taxes once we’ve controlled inflation and debt… and the official statistics show that promise has now been met.”
There are there problems with this statement from the prime minister. The first is that he has met only one, not both of his inflation targets – his government’s other is to get it back down to 2%, and at 4.6% it’s still very high by the standards of the last 20 years.
Secondly, debt is not going down – in absolute terms it is rising. Sunak means, but does not say, that debt is falling as a proportion of GDP, a slight of hand that matters.
Thirdly, he is boasting about growth, saying: “Our growth is stronger.” Yes, stronger than the March budget, but the last quarterly GDP figures came in at 0.0%, nil growth, and the latest indications from business point to all but no growth and maybe even recession in the coming months.
Instead what has changed is circumstance – the election, even at its furthest away point, is getting closer, while his colleagues are circling on a range of topics and he feels more unstable than at any point since the start of the year after the Rwanda court defeat.
This is an argument he is going to have to work very hard if he wants to win.
What chancellor could announce in autumn statement
Over the weekend, Mr Hunt insisted the focus of the upcoming budget would be on growth for business, telling Sky News he wanted to help create a “productive, dynamic, fizzing economy”.
But the chancellor also said “everything is on the table” when asked about swirling rumours over possible tax cuts.
Sky’s deputy political editor Sam Coates understands taxes on personal incomes will fall in Wednesday’s statement, as the government also seeks to help households with the cost of living crisis.
In the latest edition of the Politics at Jack and Sam’s podcast, by Sky News and Politico, he said the cut was unlikely to be on the basic rate of income tax though.
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However, the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Paul Johnson, warned there was “no headroom there at all” for major tax cuts.
The economist said chancellors could “always find a few billion in a budget or an autumn statement if they want to”, but the public finances were “in such a mess” due to the amount being spent on debt interest, that there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room for Mr Hunt.
During his speech, Mr Sunak also promised to “clamp down” on welfare fraudsters, calling it a “national scandal” and “an enormous waste of human potential” that around two million people of working age were not in employment.
The government is said to be considering a big squeeze on benefits in order to find savings, effectively cutting working age welfare payments for millions of people.
The prime minister said: “We believe in the inherent dignity of a good job, and we believe that work, not welfare is the best route out of poverty.
“So we must do more to support those who can work to do so, and we will clamp down on welfare fraudsters because the system must be fair for taxpayers who fund it.”
Mr Sunak also used his speech to launch an attack on Labour for having “no experience” in business, and accused Sir Keir Starmer and the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves of offering “fairy tale” answers to the questions of how to grow the economy.
But Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Pat McFadden, said: “The Tories have failed to deliver on so many pledges from the past. Why should people believe they will deliver on pledges for the future?
“It sums up this Conservative Party to claim things will be better tomorrow when they can’t even fix the problems of today.”
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