Revealed: Tories' scare tactics over tax

Click to follow
A unique insight into the strategic thinking that goes into Tory election campaigns, obtained by The Independent, shows that tax scares work.

With the Tories planning to keep up their attacks on Labour's "hidden" tax agenda in the run-up to polling day, next Thursday, a very senior party adviser says that the 1992 charge that Labour was planning to hit people with a "tax bombshell" cost them the election.

The Tory strategist, who remains one of John Major's key advisers in the current campaign, says in an unpublished interview that when the 1992 election campaign opened, Labour had a very effective slogan; that it was time for a change.

"But we came up with something even more compelling," the adviser says; "it's not time to change; it could be worse; you can't trust Labour.

"And we stressed higher tax, both because people don't like paying it, but also because in a recession people sense that higher taxes are not a brilliant way out."

In fact, Mr Major raised taxes after the election, saying it was necessary precisely because of the recession, and he told London Weekend Television's Jonathan Dimbleby Programme yesterday: "I had hoped to bring down the level, the overall level of taxation. I have not managed to bring down the overall level of taxation. If you wish to call that a `breach', correct, I will accept that I have not been able to achieve what I hoped to."

However, the adviser says that the Conservatives knew perfectly well that they had made a mess of the economy. "You must remember this; we went into this election in a different situation from any Tory campaign since the war. The message is normally the Tories have delivered prosperity, don't throw it away.

But this time, he said, it wasn't possible to say that. On the contrary, the Tories had completely messed it up. "It was disaster-time. So the only thing we could say was, it might be worse.

"Of course people in the party were tempted, they wobble, they said all the time: `Can't you stress this government's positive achievements?'"

But Mr Major, Chris Patten, the party Chairman, and Maurice Saatchi, the advertising magnate, were all against that. "And stayed against it. We stayed negative from beginning to end."

The irony of the inside story of the Tory campaign is that Mr Major and the party high command are currently complaining bitterly that the same tactics are now being deployed against them - to equally good effect.

Charges that the Tories plan to abolish the state pension and extend Value-Added Tax to food - as they extended it to domestic fuel and heating bills after the last election - are badly damaging the Conservatives.

Mr Major told the Jonathan Dimbleby programme that "under no circumstances whatsoever" would he put VAT on food, but he was less emphatic about VAT on children's clothing and transport fares, saying he had "no plans, no need, nor any expectations" for that.

The Tory adviser says of the 1992 campaign: "Our agenda was tax. I'm modestly proud of the fact that when people came out of the polling booths and listed their reasons for voting Tory the first was Kinnock and the second was tax. We put it there."

Interview text, page 10