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20 January 2023

Rishi Sunak will further alienate his MPs with his comments about taxation “idiots”

With the Prime Minister refusing to reduce the tax burden and levelling up failing to deliver, Conservatives in both Red and Blue Wall seats are losing faith in their leader.

By Zoë Grünewald

If anyone has a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, pop it in the post and address to 10 Downing Street.

The Prime Minister is seemingly intent on angering colleagues across the board. As I wrote on Wednesday, by picking a fight with the Union over gender recognition, Rishi Sunak has left some in his party privately concerned about his direction. On Wednesday he prompted anger among his northern colleagues over the second round of levelling-up funding. And now, in a last-minute hat-trick, Sunak has picked a fight with his pro-low taxation backbenchers after suggesting those who want immediate further tax cuts are “idiots”.

Talking to the public in Morecambe, Lancashire, on 19 January, Sunak explained why he wouldn’t be reducing taxes. “The reason we can’t is because of all the reasons you know. You’re not idiots, you know what’s happened.” If Sunak’s words were intended to placate, perhaps he should have chosen them more carefully.

The fall-out will be difficult for Sunak to manage. Although there is public approval for high taxation, the Prime Minister has been under great pressure from his backbenchers to reduce the tax burden. Sunak is also facing the wrath of backbenchers who have now been told there is no money for spending in their northern constituencies. To Red Wall Tory MPs, Sunak seems to be responsible for their ever-loosening grip on the former Labour heartlands. To his Blue Wall MPs, Sunak is producing policy that runs ideologically counter to their principles.

There is external pressure, too. That the Budget, coming months after the Autumn statement, cannot bring any tangible good news will be a difficult message for the Chancellor to deliver. Are the government’s strategies working? There was tentative economic growth in November, and it is widely expected that inflation will begin to fall from the middle of 2023. Sunak’s plans may yet produce positive results, but a spring 2024 election gives him little time to convince the public of this. And Conservative MPs, who are seeing their constituents struggle with the cost of living, are slowly running out of patience.

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We’ve heard rumours for some time that both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are planning comebacks. But such stories may well gain traction as MPs, whose constituents’ support depends on either regional development funding or promises of low taxation, begin to question what exactly it is that Sunak is offering them.

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[See also: Levelling-up fund is poor compensation for the ravages of austerity]

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