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Alan Watkins

Alan Watkins: Tax tweaks nudge the Tories to No 10

The playing fields of Eton decided the battle of Waterloo, but inheritance tax pulls more punches now

Politics is as fickle as fashion, and just as irrational. Only a few months ago, we were assured on all sides that the class war was finished, dead, done for. It was as dead as ... well, as the Labour Party's misconceived campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

The only mourners were the intrepid class warriors of the Daily Mirror, whose great days happened 60 years ago. When we all thought the patient was safely dead, here he is, sitting up in bed and asking for a cup of tea.

I do not believe in building up a false sense of suspense in political columns, or, indeed, in most forms of writing, except ghost stories or detective novels. So it is better to admit at the outset that the current outbreak of Tory toff tomfoolery is vastly contrived. It is this week's fashion, whereas last week's fashion was the hung Parliament, or extensive speculation about the possibility.

In both cases the explanation was the same: boredom, or how to get through the next five months with Mr Gordon Brown still Prime Minister. As our greatest philosopher, Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), put it: "Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?" But the truth is that people want to be deceived, all the time. Mr Brown has been receiving the sycophantic applause of his backbenchers – idiot cries of "More, more!", organised by the whips – ever since he became Prime Minister. It has not made much difference to his reputation.

Nor was Mr Brown's sally about the playing fields of Eton exactly the embodiment of parliamentary wit, though most of my colleagues treated it as if it had been. Some people are easily pleased. The phrase was lifted from the Duke of Wellington. It was about the Battle of Waterloo. The phrase that Mr Brown purloined was about the mitigation of inheritance tax, or death duties as they were commonly called.

The originator of the new Tory policy was not Mr David Cameron, who went to Eton, but Mr George Osborne, who was at St Paul's. (Ms Harriet Harman was at the equivalent school for girls.) In 2007 there was clear dissatisfaction with death duties. The cause lay predominantly with the rise of property values, particularly in the South-east. The people who were complaining were not " millionaires", still less friends and relations of Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne. They tended to be elderly or widowed and to live in more spacious accommodation than they needed. But they were by no means affluent.

When the Conservatives met for their conference they thought they were going to lose the election which Mr Brown would unfailingly call. For myself, I thought Mr Brown would lose, or, at least, that the contest would result in a hung Parliament. But this was – still is – a minority view. Most people believe Mr Brown would have won the election and that he was mistaken in not calling it.

The Tory prospects had been utterly transformed by the increased limit for inheritance tax. It had been almost entirely the effort of Mr Osborne. Mr Cameron said immediately afterwards – it was his best joke – that Mr Brown was the first prime minister in history to have put off a general election because he was frightened of winning it.

Mr Brown had an attack of the vapours. He cancelled the election

and at the same time introduced a variation in the Tory direction of the plans for inheritance tax. Mr Alistair Darling claimed at the time that his old scheme was already maturing in the vat. But the truth is that Mr Brown and Mr Darling would not have acted as they did if their hands had not been forced by Mr Osborne, and, secondarily, by Mr Cameron.

The principal change, which was made by Labour, was that the limit for inheritance tax was effectively doubled. It took account not only of the deceased spouse's allowance but also of the allowance from whom he or she was separated. It sounds to me suspiciously like "deeming", a legal fiction with which tax lawyers and accountants are familiar.

Political commentators do not usually bother their heads with such matters. It sounds too much like hard work. There was a tremendous offensive mounted by egalitarian think-tankers, without taking account of the counter-measures introduced by Mr Brown and Mr Darling. All the left-leaning commentators, without exception as far as I could see, obediently followed the line that not paying inheritance tax at the old rate was a conspiracy got up by old Etonians, aristocrats, millionaires, footballers and residents of Notting Hill.

And yet, it was the change in inheritance tax which set up the Tory revival in the first place. It is still going on. I will not say "going strong", but there is enough power left in the battery to propel Mr Cameron into No 10.

Mr Cameron became leader of his party not because he was an Etonian, intelligent or well-connected (though he possessed all these characteristics and more besides) but because he was likeable, at any rate on a superficial level. His three immediate predecessors were not so instantly popular. Sir John Major was, perhaps oddly so. But he won an election, more or less off his own bat.

In the succession to Margaret Thatcher, the battle was not to choose the Tory toff. Michael Heseltine was not a toff exactly, but he had been to Oxford and he had made a lot of money by his own efforts. Worst of all he had brought down his mistress.

Douglas Hurd was an authentic toff, both the son and the grandson of an MP. Some journalists persisted in describing him as the product of Eton, Oxford and the Guards, whereas he had been at Eton, Cambridge and in the diplomatic service. Exasperated, Mr Hurd, as he was then, said: "I was brought up on a farm. I don't know how we get into all this. This is inverted snobbery. I thought I was running for leader of the Conservative Party, not some demented Marxist ...."

Most changes in domestic politics go back to Harold Wilson. When Alec Douglas-Home gave up as Conservative leader in 1965, the Tories wanted someone as like Wilson as possible. So they chose Edward Heath, who was described as "gritty" and "abrasive". They forgot to add his sense of humour or his political skills. In much the same way did they want someone like Mr Tony Blair.

In modern times, there have been only four meritocratic leaders of the Labour Party, as I would define the term: Wilson, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Brown. Of these, two – Wilson and Brown – became prime minister. In the same period, the Conservative leaders have been: Heath, Thatcher, Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith (if he is regarded as a meritocrat) and Michael Howard. Of these, three – Heath, Thatcher and Major – became prime minister.

The golden age of meritocracy began with the end of the last war and finished in the late 1970s. The demise of the officer class and of mining MPs has had a similar effect in both parties. We may be coming to an end of the period when politicians entered the trade at a young age and for life. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown are examples of this mode of existence.