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10 March 2021updated 12 Mar 2021 12:24pm

The Conservatives are already discovering the challenges posed by Rishi Sunak’s Budget

The row over nurses' pay and the aid budget reflect a bigger question for the Conservatives: are Sunak’s cuts politically deliverable?

By Stephen Bush

Is the government headed for a U-turn over nurses’ pay? A Redfield & Wilton poll for the i showed that 62 per cent of people think that health workers should receive a more generous pay settlement, while a majority would support strike action by nurses to secure better pay. Adding to the internal difficulties the plan poses, a majority of Conservative voters think that the one per cent raise (which in practice due to inflation and so on is a freeze in some cases and a real-terms cut in others) doesn’t go far enough.

One of the few of the planned cuts that voters like, the reduction of the international development budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent, continues to attract growing opposition in parliament. The former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith is the latest big name to announce his opposition to the plans.

​Both stories in different ways bring us back to the big question about Rishi Sunak’s Budget and the government’s financial plans: can you deliver Sunak’s planned cuts while avoiding political damage, whether to the government’s standing in the country, in the shape of defeats in the House of Commons, or, more importantly, to the social fabric in the UK or abroad?

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

Remember that outside the protected departments health, the police and schools every other department has faced a decade of cuts, with more planned even before Sunak’s extra £4bn. If we’re not at the limit of what you can do and retain political consent, we must be near to it. 

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As it stands, the grisly details of those cuts remain out-of-view, and they will do until the spending review in the autumn has to spell out the full implications of Sunak’s plans. 

Of course, that’s one reason many believe that Sunak’s planned cuts will never happen that he will have to retreat on these measures because it is one thing to announce £4bn of cuts to something​​​​​​ as yet undefined halfway through a Budget document. It is quite another to announce and implement specific policies, as the public resistance to the NHS pay proposal and the parliamentary resistance to the aid budget show. It is far from clear that Sunak’s plans will survive first contact with the public or his parliamentary party.