“All I can say is that I am not daunted,” the UK’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, declared in his first speech as premier outside Downing Street. Brave words given the “profound economic crisis” he admits the country is facing.
Sunak’s address was a sober one. He declared that “some mistakes were made” by his predecessor (an almost comical understatement), and that he had taken Liz Truss’s place “in part to fix them”. His tone contrasted with the defiant speech given by the outgoing incumbent. Despite the economic turmoil triggered by her mini-Budget, Truss offered no apology and showed no remorse in her final speech as PM.
Mimicking one of Boris Johnson’s rhetorical tactics, she quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that they are difficult.”
Seneca was exiled by Claudius for alleged adultery, but returned as an adviser to Nero. And as the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister insisted that Britain “cannot afford to be a low-growth country where the government takes up an increasing share of our national wealth”, one has to ask whether she intends to go quietly. The first “achievement” she listed was reversing the National Insurance increase – a policy that was introduced by Sunak when he was chancellor, to fund higher spending on the NHS and social care.
Truss has few allies – she was not even the choice of a majority of Conservative MPs for leader – and it is doubtful that she has the authority to lead a rebellion as Tories rally around Sunak.
Sunak signalled that “difficult decisions” – George Osborne’s euphemistic phrase for austerity – lay ahead in next Monday’s Halloween economic statement. But mindful that he does not have his own mandate from the voters, Sunak clung to Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto for cover, pledging to deliver on “its promise” of “a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of our borders, protecting our environment, supporting our armed forces, levelling up and building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit”.
Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (assuming he keeps his job) will need to consider tax rises as well as spending cuts if they are to limit the scale of damage to public services. There was one pledge from the 2019 manifesto that Sunak went nowhere near: “We will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance.”
Perhaps pointedly, Truss did not follow convention by explicitly stating that she would support Sunak from the back benches, merely wishing him well “for the good of our country”. And if there is one thing we know about Truss, it’s her deep ideological belief that “the answer to our problems is not more taxes”.