Rishi Sunak has used his first speech as prime minister to brace the nation for spending cuts to deal with a “profound economic crisis” and fix the “mistakes” made by predecessor Liz Truss and former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng.
In a confident but far-from-celebratory address outside 10 Downing Street just before midday, Sunak listed the aftermath of Covid, and fallout from the war in Ukraine as key challenges but also directly addressed last month’s disastrous mini-budget.
“I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda,” he said. “This will mean difficult decisions to come.”
Harking back to his work introducing pandemic-related support packages as chancellor in 2020, Sunak insisted he would deploy the same “compassion” in dealing with current challenges. But he strongly suggested that higher levels of public-sector borrowing would not be the solution.
“The government I lead will not leave the next generation – your children and grandchildren – with a debt to settle that we were too weak to pay ourselves,” he said.
Aware of demands for a general election following his rise to power – achieved without even the endorsement of Conservative Party members, Sunak sought to use the party’s 2019 election manifesto as a buoyancy aid.
After paying tribute to former prime minister Boris Johnson, Sunak suggested that even Johnson would agree that the 2019 parliamentary majority secured by the Conservatives was “not the sole mandate of any one person”.
“It is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us. And the heart of that mandate is our manifesto,” he said.
“I will deliver on its promise of a stronger NHS, better schools, safer streets, control of our borders, protecting our environment, supporting our armed forces, levelling up, and building an economy that embraces the opportunities of Brexit, where businesses invest, innovate and create jobs.”
Sunak’s reference to the levelling-up agenda stands in contrast to Truss’s references to growth generation in her first days as PM last month. Nevertheless, during this summer’s Conservative leadership campaign, in which Truss beat Sunak in a vote of party members, footage emerged of the new PM boasting of changing funding rules so that cash could be diverted away from deprived urban areas towards Tory heartlands.
In his speech today, Sunak said his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.
He added: “Trust is earned and I will earn yours.”
But he acknowledged that there was “work to do to restore trust after all that has happened”.
Despite praising Liz Truss for her ambitions, he pulled no punches in relation to her delivery during her weeks in office.
“She was not wrong to want to improve growth in this country. It is a noble aim. And I admired her restlessness to create change,” he said.
“But some mistakes were made. Not born of ill will or bad intentions, quite the opposite in fact, but mistakes nonetheless. And I have been elected as leader of my party and your prime minister in part to fix them. And that work begins immediately.”