LONDON — Jeremy Hunt, the man brought in to save Liz Truss’ floundering premiership and calm spooked markets, warned Sunday that he’s “not taking anything off the table” when it comes to rethinking the government’s economic policies.
In a round of broadcast interviews, Hunt — appointed as the U.K.’s top finance minister Friday after Truss sacked Kwasi Kwarteng — left the door open to fresh about-turns on the debt-funded, tax-cutting promises that helped Truss become Conservative leader just weeks ago.
“We are going to have to take some very difficult decisions, both on spending and on tax,” Hunt told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. “Spending is not going to increase by as much as people hoped, and indeed we’re going to have to ask all government departments to find more efficiencies than they had planned, and taxes are not going to go down as quickly as people thought, and some taxes are going go up,” he added.
Hunt — a former Cabinet minister and two-time leadership contender drawn from the center-left of the Conservative Party — is now in an extraordinarily powerful position, having been drafted in to salvage Truss’ premiership amid collapsing poll ratings and economic turmoil. Conservative MPs have been openly criticizing her leadership, amid fevered speculation in Westminster that the party will try to oust her — a move that would likely require a change to the party’s internal rules and could put the U.K. on its third prime minister this year.
As well as sacking her chancellor, Truss was on Friday forced to abandon a totemic pledge from her leadership campaign, and she will now increase corporation tax as had originally been planned by the man she defeated in the Tory contest, Rishi Sunak. It followed a humiliating climbdown over plans to cut taxes for Britain’s top earners, unveiled in a so-called mini-budget in September that was not subject to the usual scrutiny by Britain’s independent fiscal watchdog and prompted an emergency intervention from the Bank of England and a sharp rise in mortgage rates.
Hunt went armed to his BBC interview with a message to voters and nervous MPs. “One thing I want to reassure families who are worried at home is that our priority, the lens through which we’re going to do this is as a compassionate Conservative government, and top of our mind when we’re making these decisions will be struggling families, struggling businesses, the most vulnerable people and we will be doing everything we can to protect them,” he said.
Pressed on the scope of his revised tax-and-spend plans ahead of a fiscal announcement slated for October 31, Hunt told the BBC: “I’m not taking anything off the table.”
But he warned Conservative MPs against trying to oust Truss, saying a further leadership contest was “the last thing that people really want.”
Elsewhere on Sunday, Tory MPs openly expressed their anger at the Truss administration. Senior backbencher and education committee chairman Robert Halfon said he was not calling for Truss to go “at this time,” but demanded a “dramatic reset” of her premiership.
The government, he told Sky News, had looked like “libertarian jihadists” who had treated the country like “laboratory mice.”
Amid efforts by some government ministers to paint the U.K.’s economic woes as entirely global, former Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean told Sky’s Sophy Ridge show: “Frankly, I think it’s disingenuous to say it’s all a global phenomenon; it’s not.”
On interest rate rises now facing the U.K., Bean argued that around two-thirds is down to global factors, with the rest a U.K.-specific phenomenon that’s developed since the mini-budget. “Basically we’ve moved from looking not too dissimilar from the U.S. or Germany as a proposition to lend to, to looking more like Italy and Greece,” he said.