Howard has chance to profit from this election stage-setter

Related Topics

Michael Howard spotted immediately the blatant political nature of Gordon Brown's pre-election Budget. The Tory leader called it, correctly, the "vote now, pay later" budget. For all Mr Brown's implied claims that the election was the last thing on his mind, this was a budget to reclaim disillusioned votes - especially from pensioners whose propensity to attend the polling station is greater than any other group.

The decision to bribe all pensioners with an additional £200 is a direct response to the Tories' promise to reduce pensioner council tax bills by 50 per cent up to a maximum limit of £500. To some extent, therefore, this battleground has become a Dutch auction between the two main parties. Mr Brown has the advantage, through the power of incumbency, to deliver his promise in time to mitigate the worst effects of council tax bills that are now dropping through pensioners' letter boxes.

But Mr Howard need not be unduly upset that Mr Brown has stolen some of his clothes. Most important, which the Tories must shout from the rooftops, is that this is a one-off payment for the coming year only - craftily not spelt out when the Chancellor announced it at the dispatch box. The council tax is the stealthiest means by which Mr Brown has increased taxes throughout his period as Chancellor. This tax has increased by 70 per cent since 1997. While most bills this spring show modest increases, there is a universal expectation of huge rises in future, following an expected revaluation and re-banding exercise in 2006. That ensures the Tories can make pensioners' council taxes a central election issue.

Mr Brown's promise to extend free bus travel to all pensioners is a blatant election sweetener. But with rural bus services in many areas virtually non-existent anyway and many large urban and metropolitan authorities having already established local schemes, the impact is hardly likely to change many pensioner votes.

Mr Howard's central task is to convince the broad mass of voters that taxes will rise under Labour. The battleground will be whether, on the one hand, voters believe Labour claims that if the Tories get in there will be £35bn of cuts in public services or whether, on the other hand, they believe Tory claims there will be a huge tax bill if Labour is re-elected.

Certainly the experience of the first budget after the Labour election win in 2001 supports Mr Howard's case. A benign pre-election Budget was followed, in 2002, by a huge tax hike of £8bn. Labour was able to get away with that on the basis that the central measure, a 1 per cent increase in National Insurance contributions, would directly respond to voter demands for increases in spending on the public services. This time, voters are not in the mood for further tax increases and may be receptive to the Tory charge that a tax hike is just around the corner.

The Chancellor has denied the Tories any space on the future of the euro - but that may unwittingly have done Mr Howard a favour. The 2001 Tory campaign "24 hours to save the pound" was a disaster. Mr Brown has proved that, so long as he is a senior figure in any Labour government, Britain will not join the single currency. The euro will not figure as an issue at this election.

At last, Mr Howard seems to have found a way of rebutting the wholly bogus charge - that so far Labour has made to stick - that he is planning cuts on frontline services. For the first time, yesterday, his Shadow Chief Secretary, George Osborne, found a form of words to indicate how the Tories would stick to current Labour spending totals on frontline public services. If Labour is re-elected it will be Labour who will, he claimed, be the party that will waste an additional £35bn on bureaucracy by the end of the next parliament that will have to be covered by additional taxation.

The Tories also have the opportunity of a further tax announcement of their own as they have still to spell out how they will use the remainder of the £4bn they have set aside for tax cuts. Mr Howard might be well advised to dust down the 1992 Tory election poster "Labour's tax bombshell".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones