British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday defended the reappointment of party colleague Suella Braverman as the home secretary, ruled out an early election, and indicated “difficult decisions” will be taken soon for the economy, deflecting attacks from the Opposition in parliament on his first full day as premier.
Sunak and his Conservative Party have been under pressure to call general elections, not due until 2024, as Britain got its third PM in less than two months, with each taking significantly different policy lines than their predecessor.
Following a meeting of his new cabinet, Sunak engaged in his first parliamentary joust as PM with Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer, whose party now has a significant lead in opinion polls. “We will have to take difficult decisions to restore economic stability and confidence,” Sunak told MPs, brushing off Starmer’s election call. “I will always protect the most vulnerable. We did it in Covid and we will do it again,” the former finance minister added.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt – retained in Sunak’s cabinet along with several other senior ministers – said that Monday’s planned “medium-term fiscal statement” was no longer so pressing.
Instead, there will be a full budget statement on November 17 to lay out the new government’s tax and spending plans, Hunt told reporters. Markets were unperturbed by the postponement, suggesting Hunt and Sunak have successfully calmed investors’ nerves.
This was in contrast with Truss’ term, whose sweeping tax cut plan raised fears about the country’s fiscal health, triggering a crash in markets and the pound. Truss left office as the UK’s shortest-serving premier in history, replaced by its youngest since 1812 and first Hindu leader.
The change in leadership prompted growing questions about the legitimacy of such decisions. “The only time he (Sunak) ran in a competitive election, he got trounced by the former prime minister, who herself got beaten by a lettuce,” Starmer said, referring to a media stunt in the UK where a newspaper live-streamed a lettuce on a table, ostensibly monitoring whether the vegetable rotted first or Truss left office as she came under increasing fire for her policies. The lettuce had not decomposed by the time Truss resigned last week.
In addition to the economic challenge that Sunak’s administration faces, he will also need to balance internal party politics and international commitments. The key concern here stems from his induction of Braverman in one of the top four ministerial posts.
Braverman, 42, resigned from the cabinet of former prime minister Truss last week, having breached the ministerial code by sending secure information from her private email. Starmer asked Sunak: “Was the home secretary right to resign last week for a breach of security?” He noted that Sunak has promised to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, but points out that he has put in charge of the Home Office a woman forced to leave her job just a week ago.
“Have officials raised concerns about his decision to appoint her?” Starmer asked Sunak. On the issue of the reappointment of Braverman, Sunak said she made “an error of judgment,” but she had recognized the “mistake.”
Countering the Labor leader, Sunak said Braverman will be focused on “cracking down on criminals” and “defending borders”, while the opposition party (Labour) remains “soft on crime” and in favor of “unlimited immigration”. A second complication with Braverman is her stance on UK’s trade deals with India. The UK is in talks with India over whether to increase the number of business visas to Indian nationals as part of a potential free trade agreement, a position that risks causing friction with Braverman.
Business visas remain an area of ”active negotiation” in the discussions, trade minister Greg Hands told the House of Commons on Wednesday. He said talks are complete on the majority of the deal. The government is trying to highlight the benefits of Brexit by adding to the new trade deals it has struck since leaving the EU, and Hands said an agreement with India will give exporters greater access to a billion consumers. But the visa arrangements could also put Sunak on a collision course with Braverman, who recently expressed concerns about the arrangements. Braverman, a hardline Brexiteer whose parents are also both of Indian origin, told the Spectator earlier this month, saying: “I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country — the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”
But Hands suggested that increasing the number of temporary business visas for Indians was a separate issue to permanent migration. “In the area of trade, what we’re talking about is mode four arrangements. These aren’t immigration arrangements. These relate to business visas not for permanent settlement,” he said.
“We are working towards the best deal for both sides and won’t sign until we have a deal that is fair, reciprocal and ultimately in the best interests of the British people and the UK economy.”