Sunak has ‘confidence for the future’ as Tory leadership rumours swirl

The Prime Minister gave an upbeat assessment of the economy as senior Tories sought to play down speculation about his future.

David Hughes
Monday 18 March 2024 11:30 GMT
Rishi Sunak said he has ‘confidence for the future’ as he battles to shore up his position as Prime Minister (Leon Neal/PA)
Rishi Sunak said he has ‘confidence for the future’ as he battles to shore up his position as Prime Minister (Leon Neal/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak said he has “confidence for the future” as he battles to shore up his position as Prime Minister.

He insisted the UK economy has turned the corner and people will see the benefits of “significant” tax cuts.

His comments came as Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch told plotters seeking to oust the Prime Minister to “stop messing around” and end the “Westminster psychodrama”.

Mr Sunak’s failure to turn around the Tories’ opinion poll deficit has fuelled speculation about Conservative MPs considering replacing him with Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt in an attempt to avoid a general election disaster.

But at a business event in Warwickshire, Mr Sunak gave an upbeat assessment of the economy and stressed the need to “stick to the plan”.

He said the past few years were “not easy for me” but he believes there are better times ahead.

He acknowledged it has been a “tough few years”, with Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine sending energy bills and inflation soaring.

“None of that is easy – not easy for me, not easy for any of you.

“But we really have turned the corner at the start of this year. Inflation has been more than halved. Mortgage rates, energy bills falling, wages are rising, consumer confidence, business confidence increasing.”

The successive 2p cuts in national insurance have been “significant” for workers and firms are also benefiting from tax cuts if they invest.

“So that’s the backdrop – after a tough couple of years, we’re now pointing in the right direction and that actually gives me a lot of confidence for the future,” he said.

Ms Badenoch suggested “one or two MPs” are behind the Westminster rumours and they should not be allowed to “dominate the news narrative”.

She told BBC Breakfast: “I’m sure if Penny was here, she would be distancing herself from those comments.”

Ms Mordaunt has not publicly commented on reports about a bid to elevate her to the Tory leadership, but a source close to her rejected them as “nonsense”.

On LBC Radio, Ms Badenoch said: “People need to stop messing around and get behind the Prime Minister.

“But I think, at this particular time, it is really important that we remember that there are thousands of councillors all around the country who are going to be standing for election in May.

“We need people to focus on what they have been doing to help their local communities and not be obsessed with Westminster psychodrama.”

Ms Badenoch, who ran for the Tory leadership in 2022, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I have made it very clear that Rishi Sunak is the person who is going to lead the country into the election.

“I support him fully.

“I have, as much as possible, made it clear that I am not interested in standing to be prime minister. I have shut down those rumours.”

But she acknowledged “there will always be people who will speculate on your behalf”.

Mr Sunak faces another tough week with his Rwanda Bill returning to the Commons and an appearance before the backbench 1922 Committee.

He said he hopes to see “more progress” on inflation when the Office for National Statistics releases the latest data on Wednesday.

He said: “This year, 2024, will be the year Britain bounces back.”

MPs are later expected to overturn changes made in the Lords to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.

That will set up a showdown with the upper chamber as the Government races to get the legislation through in order to meet Mr Sunak’s goal of getting flights to Rwanda in the air this spring.

The Times reported that the first flights are unlikely to take off before mid-May, and that Kigali wants to test the policy with a pause of two months after it accepts the first tranche of migrants.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper tweeted: “Unbelievable. Govt finally admitting here that Tories’ flagship £500m Rwanda scheme will only cover around 150 people. Probable cost of this failing gimmick to British taxpayer is near £2m per person.”

The febrile mood within the party came after a bruising few days for the Prime Minister, with the defection of Lee Anderson – whom Mr Sunak had promoted to Tory deputy chairman – to the right-wing populist Reform UK party, and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget failing to boost the Tories’ dire polling figures.

Mr Sunak also came under fire over his handling of racist comments allegedly made by major party donor Frank Hester.

Mr Hester is alleged to have said opposition MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

Asked on LBC whether Mr Hester’s donations, including £10 million given last year, should be handed back, Ms Badenoch said: “No, I don’t think so at all and I am actually quite surprised that people suggest this,”

The Prime Minister will seek to calm nerves when he addresses the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs on Wednesday.

One senior ally told the Times Mr Sunak would sooner call a general election than be forced into a leadership contest.

He is under pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to name the date for the election after he ruled out holding it on May 2.

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