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Rishi Sunak Looks For "Red Meat" To Satisfy Angry Tory MPs With In Autumn Statement

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits a shopping centre in Nottinghamshire (Alamy)

5 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is now under even greater pressure to throw some "red meat" to tax cut-hungry Tory MPs at next week's Autumn Statement as he tries to recover from probably the most difficult week of his leadership so far.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, a former Cabinet minister observed to PoliticsHome that some Conservative MPs could be seen "huddling" around the parliamentary estate and speculated that restless malcontents were plotting their next steps.

It was at this point in an extraordinary week, shortly before the Prime Minister delivered a Downing Street press conference on the Supreme Court's Rwanda ruling earlier that day, when fury among swathes of MPs on the right of the party had reached boiling point. 

The court's five judges unanimously agreeing with the Court of Appeal that deporting migrants to Rwanda is unlawful, dealt an enormous — and potentially fatal — blow to a key plank of the PM's pledge to stop small boats crossings. It prompted dozens of Tories to demand that Sunak go as far as the nuclear step of cutting UK ties with international law, and speculation in Westminster was abound that the angriest Conservative MPs were prepared to force a confidence vote in the Prime Minister if he didn't accede to their demands.

A couple of hours earlier, following Prime Minister's Questions, Sunak had visited Tory MPs in the parliamentary tea rooms — in what is usually a sign of a Prime Minister under pressure. Some of his fellow Conservative MPs were so angry that they wanted him, not Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, to address the 1922 Committee meeting of backbenchers that evening.

Sunak's announcement that he would bring forward "emergency" legislation to prevent a new deal with Rwanda, details of which are expected to be confirmed in the coming days, managed to assuage some of the anger — at least for now. But the legislation faces staunch opposition from the House of Lords, which will only further anger restless Tories on the party right, while the Prime Minister remains reluctant to do what some of his MPs want him to do and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in order to avert legal challenges in pushing the policy through.

Unhelpfully for the PM, George Osborne, the former Tory Chancellor, argued during the latest episode of his podcast Political Currency that the UK leaving the ECHR was "off the table" now that David Cameron, the former Conservative prime minister, is Foreign Secretary.

The Prime Minister's combative response to the Supreme Court ruling may have helped bring the temperature down in his party, but he is now under even greater pressure to satisfy Conservative MPs at next week's Autumn Statement by including some tax cuts. 

"He will want to give some red meat," said one senior Tory figure.

Up to now, Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt have been reluctant to consider major tax cuts, explaining to impatient Conservative backbenchers that going too far would risk fuelling inflation at a time when the government's priority is to bring it down.

But with Tory MPs in a foul mood, and suggestions that Hunt may now have a larger fiscal headroom to work with than previously believed, the pair are looking at measures they could include to mollify the restless backbenches. Among the ideas being considered by No10 and the Treasury is cutting inheritance tax, which as well as being seen as a less inflationary move would be used as a way of trying to appeal to the Conservative party's core vote.

In September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think tank calculated that between the 2019 general election and the next election, which must be called before the end of 2024, the Tories will have been responsible for the largest set of tax rises since World War Two.

Polling carried out for PoliticsHome by Portland Communications ahead of Wednesday's Autumn Statement found that two thirds of people (66 per cent) said that tax is one of the issues they will be voting on at the next general election.

Strikingly, tax was most salient among respondents in the youngest age group polled, 18-24 year olds, with whom the Tory party currently polls miserably. Twenty five per cent described it is the "single issue" they will be voting for on polling day, and said that other issues are "less important". Just 3% of respondents in the over 65 group described it as their "single issue".

Ex-Cabinet minister Jake Berry, who has been one of the Tory MPs most vocal about the need for the party to cut taxes, said the results show "why the cycle of ever increasing taxes cannot be allowed to continue".

"Given 66 per cent of people have said taxes are one of their priority issues when deciding how to vote at the next election shows how important it is the government get this area of policy right," the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen told PoliticsHome.

"All colleagues that have signed the Tax Pledge have made clear we will not vote for any new taxes that increase the overall tax burden."

Emma Dean, Managing Director at Portland Communications, said their findings illustrate the "huge challenge" facing the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in trying to "balance expectations on reductions in tax and steps to assist with the cost of living, alongside managing a grim economic outlook and rising cost of public services".

Seven in ten people (69 per cent) told Portland they were not confident that the Autumn Statement would improve their personal finances, while a fifth (22 per cent) said they were confident. The poll of 2,082 adults was carried out online between 10 and 13 November.

At the start of this month, a close ally of Sunak admitted to PoliticsHome that November would be an "important month" for the Prime Minister as time runs out to reduce the Labour Party's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls. After the events of this week, even more is riding on what Sunak and Hunt will announce on Wednesday.

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