Rishi Sunak has sparked new demands for an immediate general election by indicating that he is ready to tear up a whole range of spending pledges – including the Northern Powerhouse high-speed rail link – as he struggles to balance the government’s books in this month’s crucial autumn statement.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner told The Independent that the prime minister had shredded his authority by going back on past promises, and called on him to go to the country immediately to seek a mandate from voters.
A senior spokesperson for the prime minister said he was no longer committed to any of the promises made during his bid for the Tory leadership this summer, which included a cut to 16p in the basic rate of income tax by 2029 and a massive increase in offshore wind power.
And the aide also raised fresh concerns that chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 17 November statement will ditch the inflation link for pensions and benefits, as she said Mr Sunak did not regard himself as bound by previous pledges to protect them.
Transport secretary Mark Harper signalled that Mr Sunak was backing away from predecessor Liz Truss’s £40bn promise of “a full new line all the way from Liverpool to Hull with a stop in Bradford”.
Instead, he said the government was returning to Boris Johnson’s 2021 Integrated Rail Plan, which bypassed Bradford and relied largely on upgrades to existing track rather than new lines.
The comments have fuelled demands for an early general election, which saw hundreds of workers join an Election Now rally called by the TUC in Westminster.
Ms Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak has shredded the Tories’ manifesto pledges and junked all the promises he made, all the while falsely claiming he was elected prime minister,
“The hard truth is that no one voted for this. This prime minister has no mandate and no authority. Instead of running scared from voters, he should do the decent thing and call an election so the British public can have a proper say on the country’s future.”
And Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Rishi Sunak and his Conservatives have no credible or moral mandate to govern Britain.
“People deserve better than a prime minister who has seemingly abandoned his failed leadership campaign pledges and clinched power. As every day goes by, the calls for a general election get stronger.”
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Mr Hunt is understood to be looking for a 50/50 mix of tax rises and spending cuts as he tries to fill a £50bn gap in the public finances left after Ms Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget, in a process which government sources have admitted will be “tough”.
Mr Sunak’s press secretary made clear that the government’s straitened circumstances are likely to render unaffordable many of the promises he made while battling Ms Truss for the votes of Tory members.
- A 10-point plan for immigration involving the construction of purpose-built accommodation to end the “farce” of housing asylum seekers in hotels
- The creation of a “Russell Group of world-class technical colleges”
- The “rejuvenation” of high streets up and down the country
- A ban on housebuilding in the green belt and an end to the “war on motorists”.
Mr Sunak has already abandoned plans set out over the summer to fine patients £10 for missed NHS appointments and to hold migrants on cruise ships. He has also U-turned on a promise to permit fracking where local communities support it.
But his press secretary has now gone further, telling a Westminster briefing that, while the “sentiment” of the campaign pledges remains intact, “we are looking at whether it is the right time to take them forward”.
She added: “We need to take some time to make sure what is deliverable and what is possible, and engaging with stakeholders and with the relevant secretaries of state as well.
“Obviously, those are pledges that were made a few months ago now and the context is somewhat different, obviously, economically. We need to look again.”
She said that Mr Sunak was committed to the “promise of the manifesto” from 2019 in general terms but refused to commit to “the promises in the manifesto”, such as the triple lock protection for pensions.
“The context, politically and economically, has changed significantly since that time,” she said, pointing to the cost of the Covid pandemic and war in Ukraine. “He is committed to the promise of the manifesto but I’m not going to get drawn into the specifics.”
Asked for examples of manifesto pledges he still supported, she said: “A stronger NHS, better schools and safer streets.”
Meanwhile, Mr Harper indicated that the government was backing away from Ms Truss’s promise, made only weeks ago, of a full-scale high-speed rail link between poorly connected cities in the North.
“Things that the former prime minister said – Rishi Sunak made it clear when he became prime minister that for all the best motives, a number of mistakes were made and he was elected as prime minister in part to fix them,” said the transport secretary.
“So we’re going back to our 2019 manifesto looking at the commitments we made.”
He added: “We are very committed to delivering what is in the Integrated Rail Plan and there are a number of options for how we deliver high-speed services to Leeds and that’s what I’m looking at.”
The chief executive of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, Henri Murison, said that sticking to the plan would be “a serious setback for levelling up”.
“It means they’re still falling short of the ambition in the 2019 manifesto on which they were elected,” he said.
“It raises serious questions about their plans for growth, given that the North’s woeful transport infrastructure continues to weigh down our economy and hold back private investment.”