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Rishi Sunak Hopes A Benefits Squeeze Will Boost His Fortunes

Rishi Sunak on a campaign visit in Derbyshire on Friday (Alamy)

6 min read

A focus on slicing benefits will be at the heart of Rishi Sunak's message this Spring as the bruised Prime Minister tries to shift attention away from persistent Tory party infighting and towards his economic agenda. 

Sunak is expected to make his hundredth UK public appearance this year over Easter, spending the three-week parliamentary recess doing "political" stop-offs around the country. His travels began on Friday in Derbyshire, where he launched the Conservative party's local elections campaign — a set of regional votes on 2 May that are expected to result in major losses for the beleaguered Tories.

While on the road the Prime Minister is eager to hammer home his claim that efforts to turn the economy around are starting to pay off. He will point to inflation this week falling to 3.4 per cent (global factors have played a significant part in the rate continuing to drop) and the Bank of England signalling that interest rate cuts are on their way.

But Sunak is also preparing to talk more about what PoliticsHome understands will be a major part of the Government's agenda this Spring: taking the axe to the benefits regime.

One No 10 source said that reducing the size of the state in this way was a "natural" part of Sunak's politics, while doing so could also help the Government raise more money to fund further tax cuts before the next general election. Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt have hinted they intend to hold another fiscal event before finally going to the polls in the Autumn.

Minsters have already pitch-rolled the strategy this week. In an interview with The Telegraph on Thursday, Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said there was a "danger" that openness about mental health had gone "too far" and resulted in the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits on emotional grounds becoming inordinately large.

“There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which then actually serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill," the Cabinet minister said.

Stride pledged to bring forward plans to raise the bar for when people can be signed off from work for mental health reasons, and require people with less severe mental health conditions to take up jobs which can be done from home.

PoliticsHome understands Downing Street and the Treasury are currently looking at further ways of reducing long-term sick benefits in the belief the amount of money being paid out has reached unacceptable levels in the years following the coronavirus pandemic. Around 2.8 million people are currently out of work due to long-term illness, accrding to the Office for National Statistics.

Senior Labour Party figures say they are braced for the government to attempt to use the issue of benefits as a dividing line as the next general election approaches.

One Labour source claimed it was a row that Keir Starmer's party felt "pretty comfortable" having with Government because it would only draw more attention to the health care that people are struggling to receive after 14 years of the Conservative holding office.

“The reason so many people are off work is because people are struggling to get the treatment they need, whether that be physical or mental health," they told PoliticsHome.

The Institute for Public Policy Research, together with a host of health organisations, wrote to Hunt in the run-up to the Spring Budget, urging him to provide evidence on, as they put it, why the health of the population was in such a "worrying state". The groups argue that the UK has a "poor track record on preventing ill health", which in turn is damaging the economy, "from the size and strength of our labour market; to productivity; to growth and GDP".

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride (Alamy)
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride (Alamy)

While Sunak is preparing to spend some time on the road during the parliamentary recess, he is also expected to dial down his routine after an intense start to 2024. The past two weeks have been particularly bruising for the Prime Minister in the face of a miserable and cantankerous parliamentary Tory party. "He needs a break," admitted one of his allies.

Despite an otherwise torrid week, which included another Tory defection to Reform UK, further hold-ups to his Rwanda Bill, and ambient mutterings of a leadership challenge, the Prime Minister's call for unity at a meeting of the 1992 Committee of Backbench Conservative MP on Wednesday night was at well received by those in the room at least.

"He was in very good form, I was impressed," said an otherwise despondent Tory backbencher. Even among the most pessimistic MPs, the suggestion that the party should force another change in leadership is seen as a risible one, while the number of them who are genuinely serious about replacing Sunak with the country's fourth prime minister in five years remains a very small handful.

Sunak told the meeting that negative briefing by hostile Conservative MPs was not only making him angry, but harming the prospects of all other Tories. When confronted by the media on the issue, aides have advised the Prime Minister to strongly state that speculation about his leadership is Westminster tittle-tattle, and a distraction from the real issues facing the country that he was focused on tackling.

But the mood in the party remains bleak, with many Tory MPs still concerned by Sunak's No 10 operation. At Wednesday's 1922 meeting the Prime Minister was directly confronted by a furious Jake Berry over a report in The Sunday Times that suggested the former party chair was involved in plots against Sunak, apparently via a source in No 10. The MP for Rossendale and Darwen demanded an explanation, insisted he was loyal to Sunak and said the briefing against him was "corrosive".

One reason why Downing Street and Government whips decided to postpone the next round of House of Commons votes on their Rwanda legislation until mid-April was that they feared forcing already-irritable Conservative MPs to come to Westminster early next week (recess officially starts on Tuesday) would "drive the party mad", a source familiar with Sunak's calculations told PoliticsHome.

This position was thrown into some confusion on Thursday when the Whips Office denied suggestions that Conservative MPs had been granted a one line whip, allowing Tory backbenchers to skip Parliament on Monday. 

Sunak still faces a major challenge convincing Conservative MPs that his office is up to the job after its response to the Frank Hester race row was so widely criticised it distracted from tax cuts in the Spring Budget a week earlier. Downing Street insiders admit that the initial refusal to describe the major Tory donor's remarks about opposition MP Diane Abbott as racist was an error. "We fucked up," acknowledged one Government source. On Friday West Yorkshire Police confirmed an investigation into Hester's alleged 2019 comments had been launched. 

With the Easter break stretching out before them, Sunak will hope that his MPs return to Westminster in mid-April in a calmer state.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister wrote to Conservative MPs making the case for the Government's achievements in a bid to send them on their way with their morale boosted. The three-page letter reads: "The weeks and months ahead will be tough, but I’m confident we’ve put the country on right track to build the brighter future every one of our constituents deserve."

But with the opinion poll gap between Labour and the Conservatives widening, and the 2 May local elections expected to be brutal for the Tories, any Bank Holiday good will may well prove to be short lived.

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