Rishi Sunak Q&A: Can he fix the economy? Does he want to be PM? Did he break the ministerial code?

Rishi Sunak met staff at a Boots pharmacy in Nottingham this week before sitting down for an interview with Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana. Credit: HMT/Flickr

Rishi Sunak was recently compared to cryptocurrency; he "came out of nowhere" and "looked like the future", before being "found out" as he "crashed", according to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.

The cost-of-living crisis has damaged the once hugely popular chancellor, but he is still in post - and just like crypto investors, he's hoping the economic slump will end and be replaced with a financial surge.

He met staff at a Boots pharmacy in Nottingham this week as he sought to reassure Britons that "it's going to be okay and we'll get through this, and we'll come out stronger on the other side".

Then he sat down for an interview with ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana and explained how he plans to ensure that outcome.

He was also asked about partygate, tax cuts, the Rwanda policy and the chances of him replacing Boris Johnson as prime minister, as he was once tipped to do.

Below are extracts of the interview with analysis from Anushka Asthana:

Chancellor Rishi Sunak on:

  • The Bank of England

Question: We've just had the fifth interest rate rise in a row. Inflation is still, as you've pointed out, painfully high. The Bank of England's own survey says people have lost faith in it and think that prices are going to stay high. Lord King says they've been too slow. Has the Bank of England has been too slow and too timid?

Rishi Sunak: I want everyone to be reassured that we have the tools we need and the determination to get inflation back under control and keep it low.

Q: But should they have acted quicker?

RS: There are three tools at our disposal. The first is that the Bank of England actually have a good track record over the past 25 years at keeping inflation at 2%.

Q: But what about the past two years?

RS: Secondly, I will make sure that I handle our borrowing and debt responsibly so that we don't make the situation worse and increase mortgage rates more than they otherwise are going to have to go up. And lastly, we're doing things like improving our energy supply, moving people off welfare into work. Those are the types of things that will ease inflationary pressures. So people should feel confident that we will get through this. We will get inflation down and strong growth will return.

Q: So no comment there on the Bank of England, more recently?

RS: The Bank of England is independent of politicians, and their track record over 25 years of central bank independence in this country, is that inflation has averaged 2%. Now, on people watching, I want them to be reassured we will get this under control. We will reduce inflation.

Analysis: There has been a huge amount of criticism about the speed at which the Bank of England has acted, and particularly about its repeated assurances earlier in the crisis that the inflation rise would be transitory.

I remember an MP on the Treasury Select Committee telling me sometime ago that they felt the governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, was complacent when appearing in front of the committee, about the long term potential of inflation digging in.

Rishi Sunak was always going to stress the independence of the Bank of England when I asked him about it.

He did say - twice - that it had a strong track record over 25 years of keeping inflation low, but I do think it was notable that he didn't really respond when I tried to push him to make a comment on the more recent actions of the Bank, in particularly over the past year or two.

  • Being a big spender

Q: You're spending a lot of money, most recently borrowing £10 billion. There are MPs in your own party who suggest it is red meat for socialists. You say it's all temporary but next year is going to be painful, particularly the winter months, January, February. You're going to have to do this again, aren't you? You are never going to increase fuel duty by 5p in 2023? This isn't temporary is it?

RS: Well, if you look at the measures we've put in place and then you look at what other people have said about them, I think everyone acknowledges that the intervention we've made is really significant.

Q: I'm saying you're going to have to do it next year.

RS: [The latest package] is over this financial year all the way through to next spring. And you talked about the winter months and we know the winter months are particularly challenging and that's why when the price cap goes up in October, £400 of support will kick in off those bills over Autumn and Winter. And some of the payments to pensioners, for example, will happen in November and December. So I'm cognisant of winter being challenging and we've staggered the support.

Q: So no more support in the longer term?

RS: People can judge me how I've acted over the past couple of years. I've always been responsive to the situation on the ground.

Q: So you may be willing to act again?

RS: I will always in this job be responsive to what's happening in the economy and making sure that we've got the right policy in place. But I actually do feel and it's been, I think, independently acknowledged that support that we've put in place now is incredibly significant. It makes the biggest difference to those who are most vulnerable.

Analysis: I think it is pretty clear that what Rishi Sunak wants to do is stress the measures unveiled in a recent package, which had a much warmer reception than his attempt at the Spring Statement.

Treasury sources tell me they are worried that people don't know what payments are coming, and that is why the chancellor is stressing the staggered nature of the payments. But the scale of the crisis means people are going to still suffer and badly.

A couple of groups to watch out for are those who are just outside means tested benefits. The latest package is very generous to everyone on benefits (some will received £1,200 handouts), while everyone else gets something similar (£400 payments). The group that, inevitably, loses out then are those just above the threshold.

There are also cut off dates at which point they assess who is eligible. For the July payments it is your situation on May 25 or earlier. In December the cut off point will be before October 31. That means that if you lose your job after the cut-off date - you won't qualify. And that is particularly worrying in the winter when unemployment is forecast to rise.

Interestingly, Rishi Sunak said to judge him on the past two years on whether he will step in again.

Well, the past two years have seen enormous injections of cash, with lots more borrowing. It is a long way from the Tory chancellor that some of his MPs are clamouring for - and that Sunak wants to be himself.

Watch Rishi Sunak's interview with Anushka Asthana in full:

  • Tax cuts

Q: You said that that the NICS [national insurance] threshold increase is a great tax cut, but that means that your decision to freeze the income tax threshold is a great tax rise. When are you going to be giving us new tax cuts? Do we have to wait for inflation to come down?

RS: Well, the first of these big tax cuts is coming in just a few weeks time.

Q: But what about beyond that?

RS: Well, let's just start with the one that's coming before we forget. This is a £6 billion tax cut in just a few weeks time. It's the biggest cut to personal taxes in a decade. And it means for 30 million people in work, they're going to receive a tax cut worth £330.

Q: So do you accept the income tax threshold freeze is a tax rise then?

RS: We have to take a step back. I'm also the chancellor that had to grapple with a once-in-a-century-pandemic that really damaged our economy and meant our borrowing and debt went up to levels that we hadn't seen since World War Two. Now, part of my job is to fix that and I take that part of my job really seriously.

I have a responsibility to make sure that we don't burden our children with a legacy of debt that I didn't deal with. And that's why I've had to take some decisions which I know were not always popular and that difficult.

Q: Sharon White from John Lewis says that the cost of living crisis is as significant as the Covid crisis. Do you agree with that?

RS: No, I do think they are different... A global pandemic in which we had to actively shut down huge swathes of the economy for a long period of time is different to the shock that we're experiencing economically from energy prices being elevated as a result of the war. They require different responses.

Q: And the new tax cuts are going to come?

RS: I'm not going to sit here with you, and I'm sure you'll understand and try and write future budgets but the direction of travel is to reduce people's taxes, particularly for taxes and work.

Analysis: Rishi Sunak doesn't rule out tax cuts in the Autumn Budget but he was largely non-committal. He didn't say we have to wait for inflation to be low to cut income tax, but that is thought to be the government's position. It is possible, however, to bring some taxes down without the same risk of inflation - VAT, for example, or fuel duty.

  • Lord Geidt and partygate

Q: This is the second ethics adviser that the prime minister has lost. Should a prime minister carry on after that?

RS: I was sad to see what Lord Geidt had written. I am sorry to see him go and I'm very grateful to him for his service.

Q: So should the prime minister carry on?

RS: The prime minister has been very clear, and you would have seen what he said about the situation.

Q: In recent days [Lord Geidt] said it's reasonable to see a police fine in itself as a breach of the ministerial code. You got a police line, do you think you may have breached the ministerial code?

RS: The ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code is the prime minister. That's how our system works. And the prime minister has fully addressed that matter previously.

Q: So no, you didn't break [the ministerial code] because the prime minister says you didn't break it?

RS: The prime minister under our system is the arbiter of the ministerial code. And we as ministers, obviously we serve the prime minister.

Q: You said, you're a stickler for the rules. And what a lot of your colleagues say to me and I want to know if you agree with this, is that you turned up to a business meeting in a suit, had a cup of orange juice, as did [Cabinet secretary] Simon case and you ended up with a police fine [when he didn't]. You've been really hard done by that, haven't you?

RS: I respect the decision that police have come to I have apologised and I'm really sorry for the hurt.

Q: Did you not ask them why Simon Case didn't get fined?

RS: I respect the decision.

Q: You didn't call them? I would have been straight on the phone asking them.

RS: Unfortunately, the process doesn't quite work like that. But the I'm really sorry for both the hurt and the anger that that caused.

Analysis: The chancellor was pretty non-committal on Lord Geidt, and while he didn't criticise the PM - wasn't offering lots of support either.

On partygate, whatever he said, I'm sure he did feel hard done by. But he would never say that, and nor would he appeal, because if he lost - then the fine - that effectively acts like a caution without giving a person a criminal record, is replaced with a more formal criminal sanction.

  • Leadership

Q: You joked recently that everything used to be seen through the lens of leadership, whenever you said anything, but you don't have that problem anymore. So are you saying your chances of becoming leader have gone?

Q: You know, I was just making a general joke and there's not a vacancy.

Q: If there was would you be interested still?

RS: No. We've got a prime minister who's working incredibly hard, as is the rest of government, to work on the things that matter to the British people. We've got a lot to get on and deliver, not least as you're hearing from people here today, trying to help ease some of the challenges with the cost of living and grow the economy.

Analysis: Politicians who want to be leader, normally only talk openly about it when the time comes. So don't read anything into this.

His recent joke, however, was a sign that he knows his chances have been badly damaged by a series of controversies including over his wife's non-dom status.

  • Rwanda

Q: Hundreds of thousands of pounds on a flight that didn't go, lots of money on lawyers, and the most senior civil servant in the [Home Office] says the evidence isn't there to say [this policy is] value for money. Why is the chancellor signing off a policy like that?

RS: Well, if you take a step back, our position is clear. We've got a situation where we have criminal gangs who are trafficking people illegally into our country, and that is putting people's lives at risk. And sadly, some of them, if not many of them, are dying. Now, that is not a situation that I think any compassionate government can say should continue. The status quo is not an option. Doing nothing is not an option. And we have a plan that we've put in place that we think...

Q: That isn't evidenced?

RS: Which we think actually will alleviate that and make a difference. And we always expected that there would be challenges to that plan and we're prepared for that. And the home secretary is working very hard to continue to make sure that we can deliver this policy, break this cycle of criminal gangs, putting people's lives.

Q: And do you think we should withdraw from the EHRC [European Convention of Human Rights]?

RS: It's right that all options are on the table, but we're clearly not at that point. And there's a lot of work for us to work through. And there's a legal process that's in place as we speak.

Analysis: Totally on message on the Rwanda policy - so no sign of unease from the chancellor.

I was surprised he went as far as Attorney General Suella Braverman when she told Robert Peston everything was on the table - but his tone suggested he didn't see us ending up with wanting to withdraw from the EHCR.

Many MPs on the right support ECHR reform - or full withdrawal, but some MPs would go crazy. One messaged me that withdrawal would be nuclear, it would detonate the Tory party.

"It is very, very unlikely the PM would dare go there, as the ECHR underpins the Belfast Good Friday Agreement."

So to go there would be hugely controversial.