Earlier this week, in front of a sympathetic audience, David Cameron dropped a very heavy hint that the next Tory manifesto would commit to raising the inheritance tax threshold.
This policy was the highlight of George Osborne’s career, because after he mentioned it at the Tory conference in 2007, Gordon Brown bottled a snap election.
The context is fascinating. In 2008, Cameron said: “You can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for: the public aren’t stupid.” Later that year, Osborne said: “Where you have unfunded tax cuts they are a tax con.”
Yet a fortnight ago, in this year’s party conference, Cameron announced two major tax reforms – raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500, and raising the 40p tax rate threshold to £50,000 – which contradict his earlier statement. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, they would cost £7.2bn – and are completely unfunded. This at a time when the Coalition has failed to meet its own target for eliminating the deficit in a single parliament, and the worst of the cuts are yet to come.
Moreover, neither of these changes – nor, for that matter, the inheritance tax reform – helps the poorest people in society, because there are millions who work and pay national insurance, but not income tax. Why is Cameron now promising unfunded tax cuts? Simple: he can and he must. He must because Ukip is biting chunks out of Tory support, and its voters are old. He can because despite all the above, Labour’s credibility on the economy is sunk.
To some extent this is unfair. Ed Balls was an outstanding academic economist, spent years in the Treasury, was a key brain behind Bank of England independence and our staying out of the euro, and has been vindicated over the past few years. But modern politics is about framing the argument, and Osborne is better at this than Balls and Ed Miliband – witness his opportunistic tweet when the latter failed to mention the deficit in his conference speech.
I have to say, like many of you, I find all this dispiriting. On the deficit, the main choice next May is between forgetfulness and timidity on the one hand, and deceit and injustice on the other.
By the way, a technical problem last week meant that a late change to page 2, opposite, caused both leaders to “bust” – that is, they didn’t finish. I think of our editorials as sacred, and was horrified to see the error.
Thank you to all the readers who gave me a gentle upbraiding – particularly Mr Chris Stevens, who had the good grace to refer to it as “thankfully an extremely rare occurrence”. Well, here’s hoping. Have a great weekend.Reuse content