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Rishi Sunak has vowed to control spending to pave the ground for tax cuts next year as the Conservatives prepare for a tough re-election battle after years in government when the tax burden has increased to a record high.
“Our priority, going forward, is to control spending and welfare so that we can cut taxes,” the prime minister said in an interview with The Spectator magazine as polling showed his popularity falling to its lowest level to date.
“We are in a position to be able to do all that because we have got inflation down. The economy has turned a corner and that means that there can be a gear shift in how we approach taxes,” he added.
Sunak is facing the toughest stretch of his 14-month premiership as a YouGov poll on Wednesday showed his popularity had slipped to the same level as Boris Johnson’s at the time of his resignation last year.
The prime minister this week had a net favourability score of -49 according to the poll, representing a 10-point drop from late November.
The slide came despite the government cutting the main rate of national insurance by 2 percentage points to 10 per cent in the Autumn Statement, a move widely viewed as a harbinger of further tax cuts in the spring Budget.
The prime minister is heading into the winter parliamentary recess next week having narrowly avoided a rebellion from rightwing factions of his party over contentious plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Sunak told The Spectator he was “a Thatcherite in the truest sense” in a far-ranging interview where he defended the fact that the UK’s tax burden had reached the highest level on record.
“Why is the tax burden as high as it is? It’s because we had a once-in-a-century pandemic and we had a war in Ukraine, both of which necessitated an enormous response from the government.”
In a sign of a central attack line being drawn up against Labour, which is 18 points ahead in the polls, Sunak criticised the opposition party’s plans to borrow up to £28bn a year for its green investment plan.
He said Labour was “not going to control welfare or public spending”.
“A Conservative party is going to do those things — and cut your taxes instead.”
Sunak also insisted it was not a mistake to pledge to “stop the boats” given that tens of thousands of people have arrived in the UK on small boats since he made the commitment.
He argued that it was a “straightforward phrase” and “everyone” understood the wider intention it alluded to. “I do ultimately want to stop the boats, because there isn’t an acceptable amount of illegal migration,” he said.
Sunak has come under fire in recent weeks for actions viewed by critics as irritable, including snubbing Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last month in a dispute over the future home of the Elgin Marbles.
On Wednesday, in response to a question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer about child poverty, Sunak shouted across the podium at Prime Minister’s Questions that it represented “shameless opportunism”.
Sunak told The Spectator he did not understand the characterisation of himself as “tetchy”, describing himself instead as “passionate”.
“When things are not working the way I want them to work, of course I’m going to be frustrated,” he said.