Rishi Sunak has suggested the government cannot afford any immediate tax cuts, saying people were “not idiots” and understood what was unaffordable.
But the comments risked opening a fresh conflict with Conservative MPs who have been making the case for tax cuts in the spring budget, in light of improving economic forecasts and as a way to increase growth.
It comes after the Guardian reported Treasury insiders as saying the chancellor was not expected to announce any tax cuts in his fiscal statement in March. They said that boosting growth, bringing down inflation and reducing national debt were the government’s top priorities as it seeks to restore confidence among business and the public – and only then could taxes be reduced.
However, MPs who remained loyal to Liz Truss’s tax-cutting agenda are putting pressure on the Treasury for more radical plans – and suggested Truss could speak out in advance of the budget.
Asked about tax cuts while speaking to the public in Morecambe, Lancashire, Sunak said: “I’m a Conservative, I want to cut your taxes … I wish I could do that tomorrow, quite frankly, but the reason we can’t is because of all the reasons you know. You’re not idiots, you know what’s happened.”
Sunak said the pandemic and the war in Ukraine had left the public finances “not where it needs to be”. He added: ‘Trust me, that’s what I’m going to do for you this year, that’s what we’re going to do while I’m prime minister and if we do those things we will be able to cut your taxes.”
After the Guardian report, Conservative MPs reacted furiously to the prospect that there would be no consideration of early tax cuts.
The former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail: “We have got to get growth going. This government will sink without trace if we don’t get growth going by the middle of this year – we won’t have a hope of winning the election. We are already overtaxed and it is quite clear we cannot tax ourselves out of a recession.”
The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is reported to have met northern Conservative MPs on Wednesday night where he stressed there was little cash available for either increased public spending or tax cuts.
Sunak’s ecomomic strategy was strongly criticised by the entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, who said the government must use the spring budget to “incentivise private innovation and demonstrate its ambition for growth”.
Writing in the Telegraph, he said ministers seemed intent on imposing “tax upon tax on companies in the belief that penalising the private sector is a free win at the ballot box”.
“This is as shortsighted as it is stupid. In the global economy, companies will simply choose to transfer jobs and invest elsewhere,” he said.
“Our country has an illustrious history of enterprise and innovation, born of a culture which we are in the process of extinguishing. We have got through the worst of Covid but risk wasting the recovery.”