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Under pressure Truss and Kwarteng defend tax cuts as ‘right plan’

Under pressure Truss and Kwarteng defend tax cuts as ‘right plan’

Pressure continued to pile on Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng on Thursday, after the pair insisted their £45 billion package of tax cuts was the “right plan” to get the economy moving despite chaos on the financial markets and fears of rocketing mortgage bills.

In their first public comments since the pound hit a record low on Monday, neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor commented directly on the turmoil created by his mini-budget.

During a round of BBC local radio interviews, Ms Truss said the Government had to take “urgent action” to kick-start the economy and protect consumers from rising energy costs.

And during a visit to an engine plant in Darlington, Mr Kwarteng said the package he announced in the Commons on Friday was “absolutely essential” if the economy was to generate the revenues needed to fund public services.

However, Labour warned that ordinary families would pay the price with thousands of pounds added to mortgage bills as the Bank of England will be forced to increase interest rates to shore up the pound.

Fears among Tory MPs that the financial fallout could hurt them at the ballot box were dramatically underlined after a YouGov poll for The Times showed Labour opening up a massive 33-point lead over the Conservatives.

With reports of unease among Tory MPs after the market chaos of recent days, some have called for an urgent change of course from the Prime Minister.

Julian Smith, a former Cabinet minister, urged the Government to “take responsibility” for the crisis, while former science minister George Freeman called on the Cabinet to meet and agree a “Plan B”.

Another MP, Sir Charles Walker, admitted that his party would be “wiped out” if an election was called tomorrow, but ruled out the possibility of a leadership challenge against Ms Truss.

“If there was a General Election tomorrow, there won’t be but if there was, we would be wiped out… we would cease to exist as a functioning political party,” he said.

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(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, Mr Kwarteng came under further pressure to explain why he made his mini-budget without an up-to-date economic forecast after the Office of Budget Responsibility revealed that it had prepared a draft forecast for the new Chancellor on his first day in office.

In a letter to the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford and the party’s shadow chancellor Alison Thewliss, the chair of the OBR confirmed that the body sent “a draft economic and fiscal forecast to the new Chancellor on September 6, his first day in office”.

Richard Hughes wrote: “We offered, at the time, to update that forecast to take account of subsequent data and to reflect the economic and fiscal impact of any policies the Government announced in time for it to be published alongside the ‘fiscal event’.”

He said that the OBR was not commissioned to produce an updated forecast, but confirmed that it would have been in “a position to do so to a standard that satisfied the legal requirements of the Charter for Budget Responsibility”.

Mr Blackford called the details contained in the letter “utterly damning”.

“The Prime Minister and Chancellor cannot keep ducking accountability,” he said.

Mr Kwarteng is also facing calls to bring forward his planned statement setting out how he intends to get the public finances back on track after the OBR said it could produce a preliminary set of forecasts by October 7.

The Chancellor previously said he would deliver his medium-term fiscal plan explaining how he would get debt falling as a percentage of GDP, alongside the updated OBR forecasts, on November 23.

But with the absence of any forecasts to accompany Friday’s “fiscal event” seen as a key factor in spooking the markets, many Tory MPs believe that is too long to wait if they are to restore stability.

Mini-budget
Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng during a visit to a factory in Northfleet, Kent, following Friday’s mini-Budget (Dylan Matinez/PA)

Mel Stride, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Treasury Committee, said it should be brought forward to late October – or even  earlier – as there was an “urgent need” to increase the confidence of the markets.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “The Chancellor has commissioned the OBR to produce an economic and fiscal forecast which will be published on November 23. He will set out the Government’s Medium Term Fiscal Plan alongside this, which will build on the commitment to get debt falling as a share of GDP in the medium term.”

Mr Kwarteng had earlier brushed off suggestions his mini-budget had been a “major economic disaster”, saying: “Without growth you are not going to get the public services, we are not going to generate the income and the tax revenue to pay for public services.

“That’s why the mini-budget was absolutely essential in re-setting the debate around growth and focusing us on delivering much better outcomes for our people.”

The Prime Minister told BBC Radio Leeds: “We had to take urgent action to get our economy growing, get Britain moving and also deal with inflation.

“Of course that means taking controversial and difficult decisions but I am prepared to do that.”

Their comments came after the Bank launched an emergency government bond-buying programme on Wednesday to prevent borrowing costs from spiralling out of control and stave off a “material risk to UK financial stability”.

It bought up to £65 billion worth of government bonds – known as gilts – at an “urgent pace” after fears over the Government’s tax-cutting plans sent the pound tumbling and sparked a sell-off in the gilts market, which left some UK pension funds teetering on the brink of collapse.

On Thursday, the pound regained some ground, rising to above 1.1 dollars for the first time since last Friday.

However, the FTSE 100 dropped around 2% to 6,864 – its lowest point since March this year, amid a global sell-off, while yields on the UK’s 10-year gilts were up to 4.14%.

Speaking in Northern Ireland, the Bank’s chief economist, Huw Pill, underlined warnings that they would have to sharply raise interest rates, noting that there was “undoubtedly a UK-specific component” to recent market movements.

His comments contrasted with Ms Truss who, in her interviews, blamed “Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine” for pushing up global energy prices.

For Labour, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves called on Ms Truss and Mr Kwarteng to reverse their “kamikaze budget”.

“It is disgraceful that the family finances of people across the country are being put on the line simply so the Government can give huge unfunded tax cuts to the richest companies and those earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year,” she said.

Earlier, trade unions called for a “cast-iron guarantee” that there would be no more cuts to public spending after Treasury Chief Secretary Chris Philp confirmed Whitehall departments had been instructed to carry out an “efficiency and prioritisation exercise” in an effort to find savings.

Speaking to broadcasters, Mr Kwarteng said that despite the pressures on the public finances, the Government would maintain the state pension “triple lock” but refused to commit to uprating benefits in line with inflation.

“It’s premature for me to come to a decision on that, but we are absolutely focused on making sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected through what could be a challenge,” he said.