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Boris Johnson insisted he will not hike taxes again “if I can possibly avoid it” as he grapples with shortages across the economy and a looming cost of living crisis.
The Prime Minister said he is ready to take “big, bold decisions” to rebuild the country after Covid-19 as the Tory Party conference opens in Manchester.
He highlighted the UK economy “bouncing back” more strongly than rivals in the G7 group of leading democracies.
But he acknowledged the “chronic” lorry driver shortage and other problems were contributing to a supply chain crisis which could last until Christmas.
Rising energy bills, a £20-a-week cut in Universal Credit set to come in on the day of Mr Johnson’s conference speech on Wednesday and the hike in national insurance next April also add to the pressures facing the Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show the decision to end the temporary uplift in Universal Credit and hike taxes to fund the NHS and social care were necessary as part of the package to rebuild after the pandemic.
“If I can possibly avoid it, I do not want to raise taxes again, of course not, nor does (Chancellor) Rishi Sunak,” the Prime Minister said.
Despite the ballooning tax burden and increased state interventions as a result of the pandemic, Mr Johnson compared his approach to Margaret Thatcher – heroine of the Tory right.
“Margaret Thatcher would not have borrowed more money now, I’ll tell you that much for free.”
Mr Johnson said there was “no fiercer and more zealous opponent of unnecessary tax rises than me, but we have had to deal with a pandemic on a scale which this country has not seen before in our lifetimes and long before”.
The Prime Minister arrived for the start of the annual party gathering in ebullient mood buoyed up by opinion polls showing the Conservatives ahead of Labour.
Writing in The Sun, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer blamed Mr Johnson for the “chaos” in the supply chain and the shortage of HGV drivers, accusing the Prime Minister of ignoring repeated warnings from the industry.
“Boris Johnson was warned about this crisis and he did nothing about it. Britain deserves better than this incompetence and total lack of leadership,” he said.
Meanwhile, former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, architect of Universal Credit, urged the Government to maintain the £20 weekly uplift.
He told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday: “Even if the Government is determined to do this I would urge them to think about this over the period of the winter, not do it now, think about it in February, March, as they approach the Budget, when they know what the cost of living is, when they know what inflation is, when they know what the difficulties are in the marketplace.
“Far better to wait and see where we are, as now things are moving in the wrong directions in those terms and that is going to hit the poorest in society the most. We need to make sure we keep the support measures in for them,” he said.
Household budgets will take a further hit from next April when national insurance contributions rise by 1.25% to pay for the Government’s investment in the NHS and social care.
Mr Sunak sought to address some of the concerns with the announcement of a £500 million hardship fund for vulnerable families but it may not go far enough for some.
Former cabinet minister David Davis told The Observer: “You don’t level up by increasing the tax and cost of living on the working class. We have to be absolutely clear what levelling up means.”