Voters are always suspicious of politicians’ promises of higher spending and lower tax – and never more than in this election. The reason has less to do with distrust of politicians than with the facts of life.
The electorate isn’t stupid and, not being so, grasps in its intuitive way that no party is likely, on present polling, to win a majority on May 7. That being so, the governing one will either be in coalition or in minority. If the former, its pledges will be bartered about and watered down. If the latter, they may well not get through the Commons at all.
David Cameron’s much-trailed re-heating of the last election’s manifesto promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million must thus be seen in this light. Some voters will remember it was bargained away during the coalition negotiations of 2010, and go on to ask on what basis the commitment would survive an inconclusive result five years later.
However, it doesn’t follow that because the Prime Minister would have difficulty delivering campaign commitments if returned to Downing Street that he should make none at all. And both yesterday’s NHS spending pledge and today’s inheritance tax promise are signs of the campaign shifting gear during the run-up to the Conservative manifesto launch this Tuesday. Both are positive developments.
Cutting inheritance tax was not one of the priorities set out in our own ConservativeHome manifesto. But the tax is arguably unjust and certainly unpopular. Increasing the NHS budget in real terms is not universally supported on the Right. But it is certainly popular – and politically essential. It will take an Affordability Commission for healthcare to be funded sustainably long-term.
Promises, however, must be paid for, and there are essentially four ways of meeting these ones – from growth, from higher taxes elsewhere, from piling the cost on the deficit that the Party is promising to eliminate, or from further reductions in the growth of spending. George Osborne is spelling out which route he will take in one case and not doing so in another.
The inheritance tax commitment will be met by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for some better-off people. This is a risky line to take during an election campaign, but is in step with the ConservativeHome manifesto, which recommended that tax incentives for pension saving should no longer favour richer people.
The Chancellor’s answer on how the NHS pledge will be met is that it’s been met before, despite Labour warning that it wouldn’t be, and that it will be met again – details to follow. He has a point. The Coalition has delivered a real terms increase in NHS funding of £7.3 billion during this Parliament, and he is not planning a general spending squeeze for the whole of the next one.
However, Osborne can’t be sure what the economic climate will be like even next year, let alone in 2020. This is why we have consistently said that, when it comes to fiscal stability, he should ultimately be judged on whether he delivers his promised cuts in spending growth (which he can control) rather than the size of the deficit (which he can’t, since it is exposed to uncertainties at home and abroad).
And the Chancellor has indeed delivered those reductions. But he can’t simply take a chance on voters trusting his judgement next time round. After all, we don’t know where two-thirds of his planned savings in the next Parliament are going to come from (in Labour’s case, the figure is slightly higher – five-sevenths), and there is a limit to the pledges that can be funded by higher taxes.
Osborne is relying on as yet unannounced welfare savings and tax avoidance measures. May we suggest another means we have floated before? “The more that is saved by closing quangos, selling property, minimising fraud and error, getting value for money out of IT and reducing gold-plated salaries and pensions, the more there is to spend on soldiers or roads or border control or schools or hospitals.”
We wrote those words in highlighting Cabinet Office claims that Francis Maude’s efficiency reforms are responsible for funding about a quarter of this year’s public spending scaleback. The figure may or may not be that high. But the Maude reforms are a means of reducing the growth of spending that spares front-line services, targets waste and has cross-party support.
More would come in useful in a Commons with a Conservative-led Government without a majority – and which faces a tough spending round. Time to prepare to send for Lord Maude of Horsham.