By Paul Goodman
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"According to a recent article in these pages," Adam Afriyie writes in today's Mail on Sunday, the Government doesn't take e-invoicing too seriously." Which piece was he referring to? My starter for ten is a column from last week in the very same paper from James Forsyth, which described a meeting of the Conservative backbench 2020 Group that was addressed by George Osborne, and which Afriyie attended.
When the Windsor backbencher and leadership aspirant spoke, Forsyth wrote, "Osborne's supporters stiffened, wondering if this was going to be when it all kicked off. Was there going to be a direct challenge to the Chancellor's authority. Was this going to be the moment that Afriyie set out his stall? But when his question came out, it wasn’t a sweeping critique but an inquiry as to whether the Government should accept only electronic invoices."
"The Treasury should do its homework," Afriyie says today, closing in on his target, and goes on to claim that e-invoicing could save government up to £6 billion a year. His piece ends with the defiant words: "Look after the paperclips, and the growth will look after itself." Why paperclips? Doubtless because of Forsyth's assessment of Afriyie's 2020 Group intervention: "It was a question of a candidate to be Minister for Paperclips, not Prime Minister."
Afriyie also champions tax cuts today – cuts in Employers' National Insurance, Corporation Tax, Capital Gains Tax on business investment, and a further raising of the threshold to take more people out of tax altogether (Afriyie thus doesn't line up behind Robert Halfon's 10p tax rate plan) – plus that e-invoicing plan. But the specifics of his article are perhaps less important than its message and its timing.
"I come from a background in business," Afriyie writes. "Before entering politics, I founded and operated businesses that now employ hundreds of people. I know first-hand how hard it is to get a business off the ground and make it a success." The Windsor MP is framing himself as the go-getting businessman who knows how to get things done, and Osborne as an arrogant professional politician, with no understanding of business, complacently presiding over decline.
Afriyie will claim that his sneering gibe was aimed at government generally, not the Chancellor. But the target is clear – and so is the timing. The article (the Windsor MP's first major venture into print since news of his putative campaign broke) is an warning shot across the bows of both the Treasury and Downing Street. Tory MPs who want a leadership election are waiting until after the budget and the local elections, and their big push will come then, if one can be managed.
Unless, perhaps, UKIP win Eastleigh, or come second to the Liberal Democrats, which might accelerate the timetable. As matters stand, I doubt that the numbers are there for a challenge. But David Cameron's position has been at risk since the loss of the boundary review, and Afriyie is putting Number 10 on notice that his ambitions, whether before or after the next election, are deadly serious.