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Rishi Sunak has refused to commit to tax cuts before the next general election despite growing clamour from both his Cabinet and backbench MPs for giveaways.
As Conservatives gathered in Manchester on Sunday for the start of the party’s four-day annual conference, the prime minister said his priority was curbing inflation.
While he stressed that he would like to cut taxation, he told the BBC: “The best ‘tax cut’ that I can deliver for the British people right now is to halve inflation.”
Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, ratcheted up pressure on Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt to go further, telling Sky News that “taxes are higher than we would want them to be”. “I would like to see the tax burden reduced before the next election,” he said.
As the government mulls over cutting inheritance tax — or even scrapping it altogether — as a potential pre-election giveaway, Gove issued a warning to Downing Street to focus tax cuts instead on helping workers rather than wealthier and older voters.
“My own view is, wherever possible, we should cut taxes on work,” Gove said. “In other words, we should incentivise people to work harder, we should make sure they are better rewarded for the enterprise, the effort, the endeavour that they put in.”
His intervention came after the Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank warned this week that taxes were on course to increase by £3,500 per household since 2019, a record rise for any parliament.
Following the IFS report, more than 30 Tory MPs signed a pledge not to vote for any more tax rises. Rightwing Conservatives, including former prime minister Liz Truss, are expected to use rallies at the party conference to issue new demands for specific tax cuts to be included in the party’s manifesto.
Alongside taxation, the future outline of HS2 is a theme likely to dominate the conference. Sunak was forced on Sunday to insist that Britain was not a “laughing stock” as he refused to comment on whether he would press ahead with plans for the Birmingham-Manchester leg of the high-speed rail project.
He said he “completely” rejected criticism that scaling back the blueprint would harm investor confidence in the UK, but declined to confirm his thinking on the future of HS2, insisting he would not comment on “speculation”.
Appearing on the BBC, Sunak was confronted with a “word cloud” from a survey that showed his personal wealth was the quality most prominently associated with him in the minds of voters.
He was also challenged about remarks made by Iceland boss Richard Walker, who claimed the Conservatives were “drifting out of touch” with the needs of business, the environment and “everyday people”.
Walker announced in the Observer that he had quit the party — cancelling his membership and leaving the parliamentary candidates’ list. Tory insiders have accused him of lashing out at the party over sour grapes at his failure to date to have been selected for a seat.
Sunak insisted his actions, including scaling back net zero policies, prioritised working people, adding: “Change may be uncomfortable for people . . . I believe in doing the right thing for the country.”
It came as Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, said Britain quitting the European Convention on Human Rights “needs to be on the table” and that the Conservative party must have an “honest conversation” about the prospect.
Her intervention in The Sunday Times, days after home secretary Suella Braverman also issued a threat that the UK could leave the ECHR if it blocks the government’s Rwanda deportation policy, threatens to ignite a row over the subject at the conference.
Many One Nation Conservative MPs are staunchly opposed to exiting the convention and several Cabinet ministers are said by colleagues to reject the idea.
Sunak has insisted to date that his administration is able to “stop the boats” in a way that is consistent with the nation’s international obligations, but criticism of the government’s record on tackling clandestine migration is growing.
The prime minister faces increasing pressure to take a more hardline approach on the issue, which has overtaken the economy to become the most important issue to Conservative voters, according to pollster YouGov.
While the Tory party faithful will primarily focus on the domestic agenda in Manchester, defence secretary Grant Shapps looked further afield to Britain’s support for Ukraine in a pre-conference interview.
He has engaged leaders of the British Army about the idea of deploying UK troops to Ukraine to train Kyiv’s forces on the ground, he told The Sunday Telegraph. At present the British military is training Ukrainian personnel in the UK.
However, a government official said the idea to shift this programme to Ukraine was a “long-term ambition”, with no plans “imminent or under way”.