By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Liz Truss tried to reassure her party and the public on Sunday by saying she should have done more to “lay the ground” for an economic plan that saw the pound fall to record lows and government borrowing costs soar.
On the first day of her governing Conservative Party’s annual conference, Truss, in office for less than a month but already under intense pressure, sought a softer tone by saying she would support the public during a difficult winter and beyond.
She defended her “growth plan”, a package of tax-cutting measures that investors and many economists have criticised for setting out billions of pounds of spending while offering few details on how it would be paid for in the short term.
Truss said it was the right direction, suggesting she had not fully explained to critics the depth of Britain’s problems and the urgent need for a radical plan. Traders and investors have dismissed that argument as a reason for the falls in the pound and the increase in borrowing costs last week.
But in what some Conservative lawmakers worry will hurt their prospects at an election due in 2024, Truss did not deny that the plan would require spending cuts for public services and refused to commit to increasing welfare benefits in line with inflation, while endorsing a tax cut for the wealthiest.
Asked what she was doing to ease concerns in Britain about the impact of her plan on mortgages, loan and rental costs, Truss told the BBC: “I understand their worries about what has happened this week,” she told the BBC in the central English city of Birmingham.
“I do stand by the package we announced, and I stand by the fact that we announced it quickly because we had to act, but I do accept that we should have laid the ground better.”
Jake Berry, chairman of the Conservative Party, suggested the markets may have overreacted, while admitting he was not an economist. “So let’s see where the markets are in six months time,” he told Sky News.
Truss took office on Sept. 6, but Queen Elizabeth died two days later and so the first days of the new prime minister’s term were largely taken up with the national mourning period, when politics was all but paused.
She launched her plan two weeks after taking office, with her team feeling she had signalled her plans during a leadership campaign against rival Rishi Sunak, who had argued against immediate tax cuts.
But the scale of the unfunded cuts spooked markets. After a large sell-off, the pound has since recovered after Britain’s central bank, the Bank of England, stepped in, but government borrowing costs remain markedly higher.
Investors say the government will have to work hard to restore confidence, and the BoE emergency round of bond-buying is due to run only until Oct. 14, leaving Truss with little time.
It was not the backdrop she wanted for her first party conference as prime minister.
She arrived in the main hall to cheers and a standing ovation, but only half the seats were filled, partly because of a weekend train strike but also possibly a sign of the unease over her package.
Some in the party fear they are at risk of being seen as “the nasty party”, cutting taxes for the wealthiest while doing little to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
In what could be a sign of things to come, business minister Jacob Rees-Mogg was heckled by a dozen protesters shouting “Not welcome here” when he was arriving at the conference centre. He had to be escorted by police.
One former minister, Michael Gove, long at the heart of government, also rubbished the party’s plans to abolish the highest 45% level of income tax, hinting he might vote against it, and Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of Birmingham, said he would not have made that policy.
“It is going to be very, very difficult to argue it’s okay to reduce welfare payments when we are cutting taxes for the richest,” Gove told an event at the conference.
Truss argued the move was part of the simplification of the tax system, but added the decision on the top tax was taken by her finance minister, Kwasi Kwarteng.
She also suggested that politicians spent too much time worrying about how their policies were received by the public, saying she was focused on driving growth.
But she struggled when pressed to answer whether scrapping some taxes would have to be paid for with cuts to public services. Rather than denying this, she said she wanted the best possible services, which offer taxpayers value for money.
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(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill; Additional reporting by Hannah McKay and Alistair Smout; Editing by Gareth Jones, Jan Harvey and Frances Kerry)