Jeremy Hunt has been accused of “hammering strivers” and giving an “indefensible reward” to wealthy homeowners, as Conservative-supporting newspapers and commentators piled the pressure on him over Thursday’s autumn statement.
Acknowledging the uproar across Friday’s front pages, the chancellor said he could not be accused of ducking “difficult decisions”, given the headlines.
They made for tough reading. “Tax hell,” was the Sun’s brief summary. Perhaps the most damning was the Daily Mail, which headlined with “Tories soak the strivers”.
Inside, the assessment of the spending cuts and tax rises worth around £55bn made for even tougher reading for Hunt. The Sun’s editorial said the autumn statement was “some of the foulest medicine ever dished up by a Tory chancellor” and added: “We just pray it doesn’t kill the patient.”
Pointing out the UK was set for the highest tax burden in its history, the Sun said it feared Hunt’s announcement “could crush growth and gift investment, jobs and skilled high-flyers to lower-tax competitors”.
While by no means suggesting the mess was caused only by the Conservatives, the paper’s editorial asked why Britain was “alone in hammering households’ spending power in the teeth of a recession”.
It still disparaged Labour, but said increasing pensions by at least 11% – in line with inflation – was good news for those surviving solely on the payments but an “indefensible reward for mortgage-free millionaires when young renters’ lives are getting markedly worse”.
Further inside, the Sun’s former political editor Trevor Kavanagh was far more effusive about the response from the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. “If Jeremy Hunt’s budget blizzard of tax increases, spending chaos and can-kicking was designed to confuse the enemy, it failed,” he wrote. “Labour’s Rachel Reeves rose to the challenge.”
The Express carried a glimmer of positivity, declaring victory for its campaign to ensure pensioners who cannot work to boost their income were given a payment increase in line with inflation.
But the Daily Mail, keenly watched for its reaction by many Tory strategists, was far more scathing, calling Hunt’s statement a “budget to break the back of middle Britain”.
It said Hunt had defied the Conservatives’ “fundamental principles” and shown a “grotesque overreaction” to inflation and the economic slump. “The biggest losers will be the hard-pressed families of middle Britain,” the Mail’s editorial said. “Traditionally they are bedrock Tory voters. After this, many will inevitably wonder if there’s any point voting for the party at the next election.”
Concerns about what Hunt’s statement would do for the Tories’ chances in 2024 were echoed by Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator magazine. “No one can accuse him of offering fake hope today,” wrote Nelson. “The harder question is whether there is any kind of hope at all.”
He added: “It was not just an autumn statement being written, but the next Conservative manifesto, too – with all the bad stuff saved for after the vote. Hardly the behaviour of a party expecting to win.”
On the Telegraph’s front page, a headline to make Tory aides shudder quoted the boss of the Resolution Foundation proclaiming that the statement amounted to “the rhetoric of [George] Osborne … with the policies of [Gordon] Brown”.
Meanwhile, Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the ConservativeHome website, tweeted: “I certainly won’t be voting Conservative at the next election.”
The headlines from traditionally Tory-friendly papers are a far cry from those after Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. Then, the Mail proclaimed: “At last! A true Tory budget”, while the Telegraph ran with “Kwarteng gambles on biggest tax cuts in half a century” and the Express hailed the event with “Go for growth! Big tax cuts to herald new era”.