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Top Stories: Jeremy Hunt Resists Tax Cuts Despite Surplus, Kate Forbes Doubles Down Against Gay Marriage

Jeremy Hunt has insisted he will stick to his debt reduction plans (Alamy)

6 min read

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said he would "stick with his plans" to reduce debt despite a surprise budget surplus of more than £5 billion in January.

The Office for National Statistics reported the £5.4bn surplus for January, largely down to self-assessment income tax receipts, which are at their highest level since records began in 1999, and lower than expected spending on energy support.

The surprise surplus defied expectations from the Office for Budget Responsibility who had forecast borrowing of £7.8bn in January, and brings total borrowing for the 2022/23 financial year to almost £117bn, around £30.6bn less than predicted previously by the OBR.

The welcome economic figures will add to the chorus calls for Hunt to use the additional headroom, with Tory backbenchers calling for additional tax cuts in the next budget. Unions and other public service workers are also likely to point to the improved figures as a reason for the goverment to drop their continued opposition to pay negotiations with striking workers.

But Hunt said it was "vital" the government stuck to their debt-reduction plans over the medium term, suggesting he is unlikely to use the improved financial situation to offer any major spending in next month's budget.

"We are rightly spending billions now to support households and businesses with the impacts of rising prices - but with debt at the highest level since the 1960s, it is vital we stick to our plan to reduce debt over the medium term," he said.

"Getting debt down will require some tough choices, but it is crucial to reduce the amount spent on debt interest so we can protect our public services."

SNP leadership contender Kate Forbes doubles down on her opposition to gay marriage

The Scottish finance secretary launched her leadership bid on Monday but is already facing a backlash over her stance on opposing gay marriage and gender recognition rules.

Forbes, who is a devout christian and member of the highly conservative Free Church of Scotland said on Monday she would have not voted in favour of same-sex marriage if she had been an MSP when the rules were changed in 2014.

Asked how she would have voted on the issue, she told The Scotsman: "I would have voted, as a matter of conscience, along the lines of mainstream teaching in most major religions that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"But I would have respected and defended the democratic choice that was made. It is legal right now and I am a servant of democracy, I am not a dictator."

Her position will put her at odds with the socially-liberal membership of her party which recently supported moves to make it easier for people to change their gender. The controversial legislation is now being challenged in court by the UK government with Nicola Sturgeon saying her government would launch a staunch legal defence to protect the changes.

Kate ForbesBut Forbes said if elected she would not challenge the case, saying instead that she believed the public "want us to focus on things like the NHS, on making the case for independence, on the cost of living crisis, not on another court challenge".

Her position has angered SNP activists behind the push to change the gay marriage rules in 2014, with former SNP MSP Marco Biagi saying: "We campaigned long for equal marriage. As minister I signed the legislation enacting it. I was witness at the first ceremony.

"And, for me, if a candidate for First Minister of Scotland is asked whether they support equal marriage, the only acceptable answer starts with 'yes'."

He added: "I've just been through too much to now elect a leader for the country who, whatever their other strengths, can't even say they support LGBT people having this same basic right as they do."

Ministers play down prospect of Northern Ireland protocol deal this week

The government is playing down the chances of a new deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol this week as negotiations between the UK and EU continue.

Asked about the prospect of an imminent announcement on the Brexit trade rules, health minister Maria Caulfield told Sky News: "I don't know about this week."

She added that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was "working really hard on working with a number of politicians from across Northern Ireland, politicians within the EU to try to resolve this".

The timeline for a potential announcement this week is slipping as both the UK and EU prepare to shift their focus to the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine later this week.

It means Sunak is likely to face further pressure from Brexiteers in his own party who have urged him not to ditch the current protocol, which allows the UK to unilaterally tear up parts of the deal without the approval of Brussels.

As anger mounts over Sunak's position, one anonymous minister told The Times they were prepared to resign over the change, while Home Secretary Suella Braverman said on Monday she continued to back the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sunak is expected to use a cabinet meeting this morning to build support for his new deal, but faces further challenges to win over the DUP, who have suggested they could oppose the changes and warned they would continue to refuse to let the Stormont Assembly sit if the deal is agreed without their consent.

[09:28] John Johnston

Joe Biden set to speak in Warsaw after surprise Ukraine visit

US President Joe Biden is due to make a speech in the Polish capital of Warsaw after his surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Biden is expected to use the speech as a rallying call for Western countries to continue their support for Ukraine and reaffirm his commitment to shoring up Nato's eastern flank in the face of Russian aggression.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the speech, which will take place on Tuesday evening, would be used by Biden to "make it clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine, as you've heard him say many times, for as long as it takes".

Speaking in Kyiv on Monday, Biden said he had made the visit to show his "unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity".

He added: "When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong."

Zelensky used the visit to ask for further support from the US and the west, including requests for more weaponry and military support.

It comes just weeks after Zelensky used a historic visit to the UK to urge the British government to provide his air force with high-tech fighter planes following resistance from Downing Street, who claimed handing over the complex tech would require long-term training programmes before they could be used.

The US President is expected to hold a series of meetings during his two-day trip to Poland, including with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Speaking on Sunday, Morawiecki said he was in discussion with the US about "making their troop presence more permanent and increasing them."

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