Rishi Sunak has acknowledged it is “on the wire” whether he will meet his pledge to grow the economy but insisted there is a “brighter future ahead”.
The Prime Minister said he was making progress with his plan for the country but admitted that he has failed on another of his pledges, to cut NHS waiting lists.
On his promise to achieve economic growth, Mr Sunak acknowledged it was not clear whether there would be a small increase in gross domestic product (GDP) or whether it had been stagnant – but either outcome was better than the recession some had feared, he said.
“That has not happened and we have outperformed European countries like Germany and others.”
Official statistics later this month will show whether Mr Sunak has met his promise to grow the economy.
The Prime Minister is under pressure to offer voters tax cuts in a pre-election giveaway to boost the Tories’ chances of keeping power.
But Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has sought to manage expectations about what can be achieved in the March Budget.
Mr Sunak said: “I never get into this Budget speculation, but the direction of travel is clear.”
He added: “I believe when people work hard, that should be rewarded, and the way to do that is to make sure that they can keep more of their own money – and that is the type of society I want to build and actually cutting taxes is an expression of that.”
He said “I think we have made good progress on the economic ones, which are the first three – to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt. We have not made progress on cutting waiting lists, which we will get into; and we have made progress on stopping the boats – but there is more to do – and we will get on to that as well.”
The Prime Minister said industrial action in the NHS in England had contributed to the failure to cut waiting lists.
Asked about the NHS commitment during an interview with Piers Morgan in Downing Street, Mr Sunak said: “We have not made enough progress.”
Asked whether he had failed on the pledge, the Prime Minister replied: “Yes, we have.”
Downing Street later said the Prime Minister believes the Government is doing an “outstanding” job despite his Education Secretary having earlier said it did not merit a top performance rating.
Asked about the interview in which Gillian Keegan said she would assess the Tories’ performance as “good”, a Number 10 spokeswoman said: “I think the point that was being made and the Prime Minister would agree with is that the Government is always looking to improve and build on successes.”
Asked whether the Prime Minister thinks the Government has done an “outstanding job”, she said: “He does, yes. But as I say, there is always more work to be done and he is committed to continuing to deliver and to continue to improve services, be it education, stopping the boats and delivering on his five priorities, and he and his ministers are working across Government and in all departments to improve people’s lives.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Rishi Sunak has finally admitted what has been blatantly obvious to everyone else for years – the Conservatives have failed on the NHS.”
On his pledge to “stop the boats”, Mr Sunak said the Rwanda deal would act as a deterrent for people crossing the English Channel.
“I believe that when we get it up and running, when we get flights going off – and it is uncapped, so we can send lots of people there – then people will stop coming,” he said.
He accepted a £1,000 bet with Morgan that deportation flights to Rwanda will take place before the next general election, which is expected in the autumn.
SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn described the wager as “depraved”, with “the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet reduced to a crude bet”.
Mr Sunak turned his fire on Sir Keir Starmer as he seeks to overturn Labour’s poll lead of around 20 points.
The Prime Minister again attacked his opposite number’s legal career, which included advising the now-banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in a dispute with the German government.
Asked if Sir Keir was a “terrorist sympathiser”, the Prime Minister said: “I would say let the facts speak for themselves, right?
“There he was, he was their lawyer when they were trying to resist this. We have just proscribed them because we think that is what they are. And these things speak to people’s values, right?”