Sunak Vows No U.K. Austerity, Says He’s United With Johnson

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Rishi Sunak promised the U.K. won’t see a return to the austerity policies of last decade and said he works well with Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- while refusing to deny he wants to succeed him one day.

The chancellor of the exchequer was speaking in a round of broadcast interviews on Thursday after several newspapers reported a rift with the Johnson over the two men’s approach to spending. Sunak told ITV his relationship with Johnson is “very good indeed.”

“He and I work really well and really closely together,” Sunak said. “We are actually in lockstep on making sure that we secure our recovery.”

The relationship between Sunak and Johnson is under scrutiny because as the two most powerful men in government, they will shape the U.K.’s recovery from the coronavirus outbreak and the country’s worst recession in three centuries. The government’s biggest priorities are also expensive ones, including “leveling up” regions outside London.

But the two leaders have often struck a very different tone on spending, with Johnson talking up big infrastructure projects and Sunak repeatedly stressing the need to rein in a budget deficit that ballooned in the pandemic.

Johnson’s office has refused to deny the prime minister mooted making Sunak the new health secretary -- in effect a demotion -- while saying the premier has full confidence in his finance minister. The Sunday Times newspaper reported Johnson made the remark in response to the leaking of a letter from Sunak calling for Covid travel restrictions to be eased.

Popular Tory

Demoting Sunak would be politically dangerous for Johnson, with polls of voters and Conservative Party members both showing the chancellor is among the most popular members of the cabinet. YouGov polling in June put his net approval rating at 16%, compared to minus 15% for the premier.

A ConservativeHome poll of party members earlier this month has him as their top pick to succeed Johnson, with 31% choosing Sunak, compared to 12% for second-placed International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.

Sunak on Thursday three times rebuffed an ITV question about whether he has ambitions to lead the Tory party. “My sole focus is on making sure that we recover as strongly and as quickly as possible,” he said.

He was speaking after the Office for National Statistics figures revealed the U.K. economy grew by 1% in June -- more than the 0.8% predicted by economists, showing the recovery is taking hold.

No Austerity

Sunak is gearing up for a multi-year spending review in the fall, at which he’ll set spending budgets for the next three years for government departments. He has stressed the need for fiscal restraint after the government spent some 350 billion pounds ($485 billion) fighting Covid-19 and protecting businesses and workers from the impact of lockdowns.

The chancellor has already cut aid spending and frozen pay for some public sector workers, leading to speculation about further austerity measures along the line of those pursued by successive Conservative governments since 2010.

There’s certainly pressure on the public purse, and the government’s own fiscal watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, warned last month of three potentially catastrophic risks to the country’s finances. It totted up 30 billion pounds of unfunded pressures over the next three years.

“What we’re going to see is absolutely no return to austerity,” Sunak told Sky News. “People are going to see very strong investment in public services.”

Sunak reiterated a previous promise that he’ll be raising annual public spending by 100 billion pounds per year over the course of the current five-year Parliament. He also stressed the government’s commitment to hire 50,000 new nurses, 20,000 new police officers and build 40 new hospitals.

The chancellor also said the country’s record in cutting greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining growth shows the government’s environmental goals can be achieved without damaging the economy. “What the government is committed to doing is making sure that we do the transition to net zero in a way that does keep costs low on people,” he told Sky News.

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