Jeremy Hunt has seemingly escaped public pushback from fellow Conservative MPs over his tax-raising autumn statement, but he was lambasted by Labour for trying to blame global factors for a crisis sparked by Liz Truss’s mini-budget.
While there had been mutterings of dissent in advance at the idea of Hunt trashing Truss’s embrace of tax cuts, in the lengthy Commons debate after his statement there were only a few fairly muted quibbles.
In contrast, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, tore into what she called “a crisis made in Downing Street”, ridiculing Hunt’s notion that the fiscal pain was entirely the doing of Covid and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“No one was talking about cuts to public spending two months ago. And no other advanced economy is cutting spending or increasing taxes on working people as they head into a recession,” Reeves said.
“What people will be asking themselves at the next general election is this: am I and my family better off with the Tories? And the answer is no. The mess we are in is not just a result of 12 weeks of Conservative chaos, but 12 years of Conservative economic failure.
“The chancellor should have come here today to ask for forgiveness. At the very least he could have offered an apology. But no. All the country got was an invoice for the economic carnage the government has created. Never again can the Conservatives claim to be the party of economic competence.”
Reeves accused Hunt of trying to pretend that the mini-budget of Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, had never happened.
Referencing an infamous episode in the 1980s US TV drama Dallas in which a popular cast member who had been killed off was brought back by pretending that an entire season of episodes was dreamed by another character, Reeves mocked what she called the government’s “Bobby Ewing strategy”.
She said: “Downing Street as Dallas, old cast members return as if nothing has happened, with tangled plot lines to try and keep the audience.”
While Hunt’s wide-ranging speech was cheered warmly from the Conservative benches, these emptied soon afterwards, perhaps indicating a lack of enthusiasm for his managerial and often statist approach. In the last 20 minutes of the debate, Hunt was questioned only by opposition MPs, as there were no more Tories to be called.
But if the chancellor had feared notable signs of anger from the government benches, the subsequent debate showed nothing on the scale of the former minister Esther McVey’s threat at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday to vote against any tax rises.
The South Dorset Tory MP, Richard Drax, praised the overall approach Hunt had taken, but warned about excessive taxation stifling growth, asking the chancellor if he would seek to “bring taxes down from their current level”. Hunt said that he would but warned that the fiscal position would need to be stabilised first.
The former environment secretary Theresa Villiers made a similarly general call, asking Hunt: “If current forecasts about economic recovery and inflation prove to be overly pessimistic, can we move more quickly than he has announced today towards delivering a lower-tax economy?”
Beyond that, concerns from Tories were more about preserving public services and investment, with Alberto Costa, the South Leicestershire MP, seeking reassurance on council budgets.
Of the big Conservative figures to speak, Theresa May welcomed what she called a “commitment to sound money and sound public finances”, in a slightly veiled if obvious rebuke to the brief Truss period.
Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, backed Hunt’s contention that the measures were mainly needed because of global factors, saying the statement had “risen to the challenge”.
Among contributions from opposition members, the Green MP Caroline Lucas noted that in his speech Hunt had not once mentioned what she called the “economic catastrophe of Brexit”.
Lucas asked: “When will he actually name the elephant in the room? When will he start to address that, and reverse some of the damage it is doing?”
Hunt replied that Brexit had merely provided “a change in our economic model” – this brought mocking laughter from opposition benches – that could be used to the UK’s advantage.