Rishi Sunak kicks off his leadership campaign on Tuesday with a pledge to tackle inflation and lower taxes as speculation rises over which candidates could be behind the former chancellor.
Sunak will promise “a return to traditional conservative economic values — and that means fairness and accountability, not fairy tales.”
The frontrunner was endorsed Monday by fellow ex-chancellor Norman Lamont, who said Margaret Thatcher had preferred tackling the deficit over tax cuts — and hinted at the approach Sunak could take to cut government spending.
“Getting through the storm requires a high degree of competence, coupled with the courage to make really difficult decisions. The public understands this better than many politicians and will respond,” Lord Lamont said. “Tax cuts unmatched by austerity are yielding nothing.”
In his speech, Sunak will say that tax cuts now would fuel inflation and increase borrowing. “I had to make some of the toughest choices of my life when I was chancellor, especially how to deal with our debts and loans after Covid,” he will say.
In a swipe at colleagues who have denounced the tax hikes they voted for in cabinet, he will say: “I will certainly not pretend that the choices I have made, and the things I voted for, are somehow were not needed. While this may be politically inconvenient, it is the truth.
“My message to the party and the country is simple: I have a plan to steer our country through these headwinds. Once we have inflation under control, I will lower the tax burden. It’s a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.”
Sunak, who stepped down as chancellor last week, will face questions for the first time since the fall of Boris Johnson’s government. MPs on the party’s right fear Sunak is headed for a coronation as votes split between at least four MPs vying for the “stop Rishi” candidate – Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, Liz Truss and Priti Patel.
While other candidates have been on the air and newspapers, Sunak has focused on meeting dozens of MPs to gain support. His team has announced that he has up to 100 supporters.
That approach is similar to that of Boris Johnson in 2019, who made few media appearances in the early stages as he held numerous meetings with MPs briefed by his campaign team on what each individual’s policy issues were. It was subsequently revealed that Johnson had made conflicting promises to several MPs.
Sources in several campaign groups reported that MPs were “incredibly optimistic” about demanding jobs in return for loyalty. Employees with relationships with certain backbenchers lined up to gather information about what the price of their loyalty would be and then prepare briefings for the candidate, who would then take over the negotiations about what might be offered.
Sunak’s key allies said they expected some of the less experienced candidates to join the former chancellor in the coming days. The campaign that has attracted the most interest from MPs is from former minister Kemi Badenoch, who has striking endorsement of Michael Gove.
“Kemi’s campaign feels like one that could easily be merged into one of the big front runners, where she becomes a star attraction for them – I’m sure that’s one of Michael’s calculations,” said a former MP. “The question is where is it going? It could be the thing that kills or crowns Rishi.”
Tory MPs said that while horse-trading and discreet job offers in return for their support were already underway, some candidates were more reluctant than others.
“Boris offered people left, right and center jobs and then found it impossible to come up with the goods,” said a Sunak supporter. “The last thing we need is to make the same mistake of promising too much and delivering too little.”
Sunak will likely face questions about why he supported Johnson in office for so long before retiring late last week. “Rishi will say how seriously he took the decision to quit — because he knew that if he did, the government would fall,” said a senior MP who supported Sunak.
“That’s not a small decision for anyone, but when Rishi pulled the trigger, it was over. And you could see that in the number of MPs who realized it was over when he quit.”
Sunak’s job will be to hold the line on fiscal discipline against his opponents who have made increasingly outlandish promises about cutting taxes. His supporters hope Tory MPs — then grassroots members — will judge other candidates’ tax and spending commitments to be unrealistic.
“Literally, they promise tens of billions of pounds in tax cuts. None of them can make a single cut in spending other than ‘efficiency savings,’ said a Sunak-supporting MP.
Another senior Tory agreed that the tax cuts that war provides was a gift to Labour. “Many of the candidates are now doing things that help the opposition,” they said. “It’s ridiculous: They promise things to membership that can’t be delivered once they get into government.”
Referring to a speech in which the Labor leader criticized an “arms race of fantasy economics”, the MP said: “If you look at the way Keir Starmer’s reacted this morning, if we run around pretending there are easy answers, and you can huge savings at no cost, I just think we’re going to destroy our entire economic credibility.”
Tom Tugendhat will also launch his campaign on Tuesday, sounding a warning about his rivals’ tax promises.
In his opening speech, Tugendhat will reiterate that he is a “natural tax-cutter” who opposed the increase in national insurance to pay for the social care reform. But he will also warn against a focus on taxes as the only economic lever.