Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Macho politics is no way to boost turnout
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The Independent Online

The veteran Tory activist was brutally honest. "Cameron only has the support of 20 per cent of this party; 80 per cent hate what he's doing," he told me over a midnight drink in Blackpool. The activist, who helped oust Edward Heath and install Margaret Thatcher in 1975, intended to plot against David Cameron this week. "The only reason we're rallying behind him is the threat of an election."

Some of the Tory doubters must surely have been won over by Mr Cameron's impressive conference speech.

But if Gordon Brown had been able to read my drinking companion's mind, he would not have allowed the speculation about an election to run so strongly ahead of the Tory conference. The Tories had a gun pointed at their head and decided not to shoot at each other. If they had not convinced themselves an election was looming, they would probably have had a fractious conference that would have better suited Mr Brown's purposes as he weighs up whether to press the election button this weekend.

The opinion polls showing the Tories closing the gap were seen as a reaction to Mr Cameron's speech. My guess is that they had much more to do with his party's pledge to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m.

Pocket book issues normally move the political markets more than one speech by a party leader and the Tories had done their homework. The political impact will spread much wider than London and the South-east, where there are plenty of marginal seats and houses worth more than the current £300,000 threshold.

When senior Tories asked their parliamentary candidates in the North to name one thing they could do to help them win, the answer came back: cut inheritance tax. You don't have to have a house worth £1m to resent losing 40 per cent of your life savings to the taxman instead of passing it on to your children or grandchildren. The Tories have rediscovered the politics of aspiration, as Labour did in its long years in opposition: it is not just the people who benefit from a tax change at the top end, but the people who aspire to benefit from it.

So where's the catch? At first glance, the way the Tories propose to raise the money for their inheritance tax cut and the abolition of stamp duty for most first-time buyers also looks clever. The plan to impose a £25,000 annual levy on people with non-domicile status seems a wonderful piece of political cross-dressing. In effect, the Tories were telling Mr Brown: if you can steal our clothes (and even our heroine Margaret Thatcher), we can borrow yours by playing Robin Hood and soaking the super-rich.

And there won't be much public sympathy for a mainly foreign group of tax-avoiders. Yet I wonder whether this wheeze is too good to be true. I have lost count of the number of times I have written articles with headlines saying: "Brown to crack down on non-domiciles by closing tax loophole." They date back to 1994 when he was shadow Chancellor. Yet he never did it. Why?

Maybe he didn't think of the Tories' trick of an annual levy. But I doubt it. I suspect he looked at the issue from every angle in his 10 years at the Treasury, and decided it wasn't worth the candle.

Mr Brown is convinced the Tories are banking on the numbers of "non-doms" being much greater than they really are. Whenever the election comes, I suspect that many voters will be bored stiff hearing the parties slugging it out on this question. Yet the argument will be critically important. If the Tories' figures stack up, they will be in business. If Mr Brown can demolish the figures, the Opposition's economic credentials will be badly damaged as it will have a huge black hole in its spending plans (about £2bn, according to Labour).

Both parties say they have got plenty of ammunition up their sleeve.But I wouldn't bet against Mr Brown when he's playing on his home ground of tax and spending. Other Tory pledges deserve more scrutiny than they got this week. They will certainly get it during the heat of an election.

George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, is adamant his proposals were not "flushed out" by the threat of an election. His camp insists he decided in July to announce the inheritance tax move at the Tory conference – and that he already knows what cuts in personal and business taxes he will offer at the election.

Despite that, the Opposition pledges do have a back-of-an-envelope feel. Through an early morning Blackpool hangover, I think I heard Mr Cameron promise on Radio 4 to reduce welfare spending by £8bn. Yet his plan to force the jobless and sick into work is the oldest trick in the political book, another tale I have written many times. When Tony Blair promised radical welfare reform and huge savings, the Tories rightly expressed scepticism. Labour went for piecemeal changes, but there isn't a bumper crop of low hanging fruit for a Tory Government to pick.

Mr Cameron promises to raise £3bn a year by getting 600,000 people off benefit by handing the task of getting them back into work to the private and voluntary sectors. That would fund an average of £1,955 a year in higher tax credits to 1.8 million low income couples with children.

The Tories cite a review for the Government by the investment banker David Freud. But even Mr Freud says it could take between "five, six or seven years" to pull in annual savings of £3bn-£4bn.

The growing view in Team Brown is the Tories are vulnerable but it will take Labour months rather than weeks to expose the flaws in the Opposition's sums. That is one powerful reason why he might decide against an election when he makes up his mind tomorrow.

The cat-and-mouse game over the election has not been a good advert for politics. Mr Brown hints at an election to pressure the Tories and allows the speculation to run. Mr Cameron demands an election he doesn't want – a dangerous game – so he doesn't look frightened and Mr Brown looks weak if he doesn't call one. Macho politics is fun for the media but not a way of re-engaging the voters.

There is a way of avoiding a repeat of this farce. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, Mr Brown is not convinced of the merits of fixed-term parliaments. Yet he has promised us a programme of constitutional reforms that will involve him giving up some Prime Ministerial powers, and has already taken a small step down this road by saying MPs should vote on dissolving parliament for an election. Mr Brown should end the silly guessing game by announcing that the next election will be held on May 5, 2009, four years after the last one, and that he will legislate for fixed four-year parliaments. That really would be an example of the "new politics" both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron promise.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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