British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could postpone an eagerly-awaited budget plan due next week, a senior minister said Wednesday, as the youthful new leader gets down to business after weeks of political turmoil.
Following a meeting of his new-look cabinet, Sunak was set to engage in his first parliamentary joust against opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is demanding a snap general election.
“The Tories have crashed the economy, with low wages, high prices and a cost-of-living crisis,” Starmer said, in a taste of the attack to come. “The public needs a fresh start and a say on Britain’s future.”
But Sunak, 42, ruled out an early election as he vowed stability and fiscal rectitude following his appointment by King Charles III on Tuesday.
After appointing the cabinet team, Sunak phoned the presidents of Ukraine and the United States to vow continuity on UK foreign policy, including resisting Russia’s invasion of its neighbour with cash and military aid.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly — one of several ministers retained by Sunak from the old cabinet of Liz Truss — said however that Monday’s “medium-term fiscal statement” was no longer so pressing.
The statement was forced on Truss after she caused financial markets to implode with an ill-conceived plan for tax cuts financed by extra borrowing.
She ditched her finance minister and turned to a new one in Jeremy Hunt to steady the ship, but her own premiership was mortally wounded.
Sunak also retained Hunt in his cabinet, and vowed to restore “trust” and “integrity” in government after Truss’s financial carnage and the many controversies that brought down Boris Johnson before her.
But for critics, the new leader undermined his own pledges by also re-appointing the hardline right-winger Suella Braverman as interior minister, days after she was forced to resign for a security breach.
Cleverly said Braverman had shown contrition for her “mistake” in emailing sensitive government documents outside her department.
– ‘Livid’ –
On the fiscal statement, the foreign minister told BBC television that “a short delay, in order to make sure that we get this right, I think that is not necessarily a bad thing at all”.
“He will want some time with his chancellor (Hunt) to make sure that the fiscal statement matches his priorities,” Cleverly added, warning that further cuts to foreign aid might be necessary.
As well as mending Britain’s wounded finances, Sunak is also pledging to reunite the Conservatives after another bruising leadership contest, mere weeks after Johnson was forced out.
The right-leaning Times daily welcomed a “generally broad and capable set of cabinet appointments”, although the left-wing Guardian expressed scepticism.
“Sooner or later, he will face the parliamentary disunity that his election sought to banish,” it said in an editorial.
Sunak, finance minister under Johnson, also kept Truss’s defence, trade and culture ministers among others, as well as re-hiring some older faces from the Johnson cabinet.
The line-up “reflects a unified party and a cabinet with significant experience, ensuring that at this uncertain time there is continuity at the heart of government”, a Downing Street source said.
But Braverman’s return raised eyebrows across the political spectrum, with Labour demanding answers to the implications for national security.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, is “livid” over her swift return, a source told The Times.
Truss left office as the UK’s shortest-serving premier in history, replaced by its youngest since 1812 and first Hindu leader.
Sunak triumphed in a 96-hour Tory leadership contest after rival contender Penny Mordaunt failed to secure enough nominations from Tory lawmakers and Johnson dramatically aborted an audacious comeback bid.