4 min read
“What’s not to like about Rishi Sunak? He’s great,” one Conservative activist enthusiastically said as they left the Chancellor’s first in-person speech at party conference.
It was a recurring theme among the Tory faithful as they praised the man in Number 11 for an address to members that was light on policy but strong on fiscal discipline and responsibility for the nation’s economy.
A number of those in attendance told PoliticsHome they approved of his commitment to returning them to the party of low taxation amid unease over a raft of recent spending and a planned hike in National Insurance to pay for a new social care plan.
“I think there’s a lot of concern around the party that we’re losing that tag of being the party of low taxation,” one member said.
“We’re already on message now as the party of ‘lower taxation’, rather than absolutely low taxation, and there’s some concern about that.”
But he said he was pleased Sunak had “set his stall out that he is the Chancellor that’s going to not allow spending or the debt to get out of control”.
Early on in his speech to a packed auditorium in Manchester this lunchtime, with people queuing down the conference centre trying to get in, the Cabinet minister clearly set out his stall on a restrained approach to spending.
“Pragmatism, fiscal responsibility, a belief in work, and an unshakeable optimism about the future,” Sunak said.
“This is who I am. This is what I stand for. This is what it will take. And we will do whatever it takes.”
Sunak praised his predecessors in the Treasury for “their 10 years of sound Conservative management of our economy” and sought to justify recent controversial tax rises.
“They believed in fiscal responsibility, I believe in fiscal responsibility, and everyone in this hall does too,” he continued.
“And whilst I know tax rises are unpopular, some will even say un-Conservative. I’ll tell you what IS un-Conservative: Unfunded pledges, reckless borrowing, and soaring debt.”
A member of the Young Conservatives was also full of praised for Sunak. “He was excellent,” they gushed. “He’s incredibly eloquent and very passionate and clearly believes in what he’s what he says he’s doing.
“It was a strong conservative rhetoric, he wants to show he will get the job done right in his way, in the traditional Tory way.”
Another party member enjoyed the speech and although it was “light on the initiatives”, it was positive and encouraging.
Members also seemed sympathetic to the National Insurance rise and potential for other taxes to go up to pay for the pandemic spending, a distinctly un-Tory move.
“I think we all recognise the situation the country’s in now, so we need to deal with the current situation,” one activist told PoliticsHome.
“But yes, I think it’s also really important for the Conservatives – who have a reputation for being the party of low taxes – that going forward in the future we do return to that environment, but we do need to get the situation fixed first.”
They added: “But I said to my friend who I sat next to at the end, you know, what’s not to like about Rishi Sunak? He’s great.”
Sunak has also won praise from his own MPs, the former health minister Stephen Hammond telling a PoliticsHome fringe event this morning he believed he was the “most impressive Chancellor we’ve had for 25 years”.
Criticising some Cabinet ministers for being “fiscally incontinent” whose every answer is “to spend”, Hammond said has not comfortable with that as a “good Conservative”.
He said Sunak’s emotional intelligence is “extraordinary”. MP Saqib Bhatti, who was also on the panel, agreed with Hammond’s assessment.
“He’s, very aware of the context of things. Rishi will try and get us back to reducing taxes as soon as he possibly can,” Bhatti said.
Last night at a drinks reception hosted by the backbench 1922 committee, Sunak delivered a speech in which the biggest cheer was when he told colleagues: “For the record, I’m also a low-tax Conservative.”
But Sunak has stopped short of explicitly ruling out further tax rises. “There can be no prosperous future unless it is built on the foundation of strong public finances,” he said in his Conference address.
“I have to be blunt with you, our recovery comes with a cost. Our national debt is almost 100% of GDP.
“So we need to fix our public finances, because strong public finances don’t happen by accident.
“Yes, I want tax cuts, but in order to do that our public finances must be put back on a sustainable footing.”
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