Smoke without fire: Osborne’s flirtation with a tobacco tax looks opportunistic

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The Independent Online

Everyone knows that politicians steal each other’s clothes, and that George Osborne is one of the more kleptomaniacal devotees of  the black art. As a truly pragmatic sort of Conservative, he seems to care little about which party or source his wheezes come from.

So when Ed Miliband proposed a special tobacco levy on cigarette companies last year to help pay for the health costs of the damage their products do, the Chancellor’s interest was piqued. The idea combined novelty, practicality and popularity – who likes a fag firm?  – with the possibility of some much-needed extra revenue for the Exchequer. 

Predictably enough, then, Mr Osborne duly purloined the idea and put it out for “consultation”. That process ended in February. Nothing was announced. Then came the Budget. Nothing was announced. Then came the general election. Nothing was announced.

Now, finally, the next stage of this policy has been revealed: Mr Osborne has dropped the idea despite evidence of its widespread approval. Of course, the Chancellor may well have been swayed by the weight of evidence presented to him, though it is fair to say the basics of such a tax – particularly that it may well be passed on to smokers who are relatively insensitive to changes in the price of cigarettes – would have been known to Treasury or HMRC officials from the start. 

Or it could be a sophisticated version of the old stealing clothes ploy, where you only actually borrow your opponent’s gear for the time it takes to get you through an election campaign. 

Perhaps the idea will make a comeback sometime around early 2020, just in time for the next election. Maybe it will be Mr Osborne as prime minister who decides to rediscover the tobacco tax. Perhaps he will do so before whoever happens to lead the Labour Party has had a chance to do likewise. 

It certainly gives a whole new meaning to the notion of smoke and mirrors.