Rishi Sunak has hinted there will be no tax cuts on offer from the government before the next general election, as his party faces three by-elections next week.
A number of Conservative backbenchers have been pushing the prime minister for reductions to a range of levies – including corporation tax, income tax and fuel duty.
But asked about his tax plans by reporters during the NATO summit in Lithuania, Mr Sunak said cutting inflation was the “overriding priority” that took “precedence over everything else”.
The prime minister said he and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt were “completely united in wanting to reduce taxes for people” – adding: “Of course we are, we’re Conservatives. We want people to be able to keep more of their own money.
“But the number one priority right now is to reduce inflation and be responsible with government borrowing. That is absolutely the overriding priority. That takes precedence over everything else.
“Given the context we face, we are going to make sure we bring inflation down and we don’t do anything to make the situation worse or last longer. That is our overall approach.”
Mr Sunak’s comments come as his party prepares for three ballots next Thursday, with predictions looking gloomy for the Tories.
Rishi Sunak and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni react ahead of a social dinner during the NATO summit
One of the constituencies up for grabs, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, used to be served by former prime minister Boris Johnson, who quit as an MP last month after a committee found he had lied to parliament over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.
The second seat, Selby and Ainsty, was vacated by Mr Johnson’s close ally Nigel Adams – soon after reports he had been lined up for a peerage but rumours the nomination was blocked by Number 10 to avoid a by-election.
And the third, Somerton and Frome, became empty when former Tory MP David Warburton resigned following accusations of sexual harassment and drug use – allegations he denies. He has since been granted an appeal to the findings of an investigation into his conduct.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning relentlessly in the three areas and both believe they have a good chance of unseating the Conservatives.
Mr Sunak said midterm ballots “are always difficult” for serving governments, but he believed he had set the right course from Downing Street.
“Clearly the circumstances for these by elections are obviously challenging,” he said.
“When I was out talking to people, the message I heard loud and clear … was focus on the things that matter to people and make a difference to them.
“Whether that’s getting inflation under control, halving it, whether that’s tackling NHS waiting lists, stopping the boats … and local issues … putting more police officers on the streets, tackling rural crime, which is what exactly we’re doing.”
Pointing to his five priorities again, the PM added: “Of course I know things are tough – I can see that, I talk to people about it every week. I always knew it was going to take some time to improve things. But it doesn’t mean the course we’re on is the wrong one.
“Is inflation more persistent than people expected? Yes. When I set that target [to halve inflation] lots of people said it was too easy. I didn’t think it was gonna be too easy, I knew inflation was going to be a challenge.
“I don’t hear anyone saying those aren’t the right priorities to focus on. I think people just wanna see them delivered. I totally get everyone would like to see that happen as soon as possible. These things are gonna take time, [they are] not easy. They’re absolutely the right priorities and I’m giving it everything I got.”