Rishi Sunak, trailing behind the race to become the UK’s next prime minister, pledged to cut personal taxes by 20% within seven years in a move he described as the biggest income tax cut in three decades. The announcement comes at a crucial time in the race to succeed Boris Johnson.
On Monday, the 175,000 conservative grassroots members will receive their ballots to choose Sunak or Liz Truss as the party’s next leader and prime minister. They are both eager to get support before the summer break really kicks in, with the winner announced on September 5.
Sunak said he would lower the base rate from 20p in the pound to 16p – representing a 20% tax cut and accusations from Truss’ camp of “flip-flops and u-turns” on the matter. While he was chancellor of the treasury, Sunak announced a one-cent cut in income tax in April 2024. A further cut of 3p would come towards the end of the next parliament, not until December 2029.
“It’s a radical vision, but it’s also a realistic one and there are some core principles that I just don’t want to compromise on, whatever the price,” Sunak said in a statement. “First, I will never cut taxes in a way that only increases inflation. Second, I will never make promises I can’t pay. And third, I will always be honest about the challenges we face.”
Blue on blue
Tax has dominated the bitter race to become prime minister, with Sunak repeatedly calling Truss’ tax-cutting plans “comforting fairy tales.” Sunak has accused Secretary of State Truss of being “unfair” to voters with promises of sweeping tax cuts and of committing an “act of self-sabotage that condemns our party to defeat” in the next general election. He said he would make sure inflation is under control before cutting taxes.
But the Truss campaign seems to be on the rise, with polls from party members clearly putting it first. The approval of senior conservatives over the weekend only added to her feeling of going ahead. Former leadership candidate centrist Tom Tugendhat endorsed her on Saturday, saying her proposed cuts were based on “true conservative principles.”
“We cannot afford to wait to help families, they need support now,” Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke, and a key ally of Truss, said in a statement. “Liz will cut taxes in seven weeks, not seven years.”
A member of her campaign team, who declined to be named, said the public and members of the Conservative Party could watch Sunak’s turnaround.
Sunak’s change of mind on tax last week – promising to temporarily cut VAT on utility bills – has not led to a noticeable difference in the polls. However, the aging Tory party membership is notoriously difficult to question reliably and there was good news for Sunak. A survey of Tory councilors by Savanta ComRes put Truss at 31% and Sunak at 29% among 511 local Tory politicians.
The campaign was marked by bitter personal attacks. On Sunday, ministers criticized Nadine Dorries, one of Truss’ backers, for sharing a faked image of Sunak holding a knife behind Johnson’s back. The culture secretary retweeted an image of the prime minister, depicted as Julius Caesar, about to be stabbed in the back by Sunak, in the role of Brutus. That’s because it was Sunak’s resignation that caused Johnson’s downfall.
Tory MP Robert Buckland, a Sunak supporter, told BBC radio on Sunday that people who focus on personality rather than problems should “stick their necks”. Secretary of State Greg Hands, also part of the Sunak camp, called on Truss to denounce Dorries’ behaviour, noting that MP David Amess was stabbed to death in his constituency in Southend, Essex, less than a year ago.
“It’s very, very bad taste – dangerous even,” he told Sky News.
On Monday, Truss will present himself as the “Prime Minister of Education” with a plan that includes replacing failing academies with “a new wave of free schools” and improving math and literacy standards. She will also pledge to tackle the agricultural labor shortage, caused in part by restrictions on freedom of movement after Brexit, with a short-term expansion of the seasonal worker program allowing more fruit pickers to enter the UK.