Hanley's trap could be fatal for the Tories

Commitment to a three-year rolling programme of tax cuts is a sure way to ruin Major's credibility
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It is, doubtless, a sign of immaturity; but just occasionally one still finds oneself choking with disbelief. Thus, eyes watering, half- coughing, half-laughing, it took your correspondent several minutes to recover from the shock of reading that Jeremy Hanley, the Tory chairman, aided by senior right-wingers, believes that it would be a good idea to promise the nation a rolling programme of tax cuts.

These would be over three years, straddling the next election, and would involve "binding our own government to a course of action". This, suggested the egregious Hanley, would constitute "a trap''.

Damn right it would. But this would be a trap with the capacity to catch and lame the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the entire Conservative government. Far from saving them, it would finish them off.

This simple-seeming wheeze goes to the heart of the meaning of this government, its very identity. For ages John Major, in private as in public, has insisted that he is acting, and will act, differently from previous prime ministers. He will stand by his words. He will keep inflation down, and get the deficit down and keep it down. By doing that, he will help to make an economy that is genuinely strong, not merely one that goes through periodic "rushes'' of inflationary euphoria. He will not splurge for short-term political advantage.

That has been the constant message. It is an economic message, clearly, but it is also a message about character. And the next election campaign will be a contest of character as well as tax. We are all knowing voters, these days - but we are also knowing enough to realise that our sour knowingness, our cynicism, is a miserable condition. We want to be believers.

Both Tony Blair and John Major, who have sensitive political antennae, are aware of this. Each realises that the struggle for Downing Street must now be partly about restoring faith in politics. Their last conference speeches both included unusual passages devoted to the theme.

Thus Blair: "Those most in need of hope deserve the truth. They are tired of dogma, they are tired of glib promises. ... When we make a promise we must be sure we can keep it. That is page one, line one of a new contract between government and citizen.

Always, politicians have spoken more highly of honesty than they have spoken honestly. In this case, both Blair and Major were praising straight- talking as a way of slyly knocking the other guy: their attacks on glibness were embedded in speeches packed with half-truth and easy point-scoring. Piety was working on a part-time contract for Propaganda.

That said, both were speaking as people who noticed the disconnection between political speech and common English; and showed that they were conscious of being in a competition about which of them, if either, can be trusted.

In this competition, Tony Blair is currently far ahead of John Major. It wasn't just that the Conservatives were widely judged to have lied about the economic condition facing the country at the last election, and hence to have lied about taxes. It is also that Blair portrays himself successfully (I think truthfully) as a steely character, while Major has suffered badly from being attacked as a prevaricator, a wobbler.

Major believes himself to be shamefully libelled in that assessment. The accusation that he misled the country in order to get re-elected, to steal an undeserved victory, jabs viciously at his self-esteem. Whatever the world says, he thinks himself a man of dogged principle, attached unyieldingly to hard economic truths; while Blair and his friends are, to quote Major's weekend speech, "slick, sloganising, snake-oil salesmen''.

It is not yet obvious that Major's view of Major will be laughed out of the land, while Blair's view of Blair commands universal assent. But what should be clear to everyone is that the tax issue now connects inescapably to the prime minister issue. If Major is decent, and truthful, and courageous, then clearly he will stick by the economic strategy which he has initiated. He will stand by his words.

That is incompatible with promising now tax cuts in three years' time, for the obvious reason that Major does not know what the economy will be like in three years' time. He hopes and believes we will have growth and merriment; but he has been wrong repeatedly before.

So Jeremy Hanley's trap would snap shut confronted by the simple question: "Are you undertaking to cut taxes whatever happens?'' If the answer was yes, then Major would be admitting that he is a cut-and-run fellow, and his remaining credibility would be blown apart. (The Government could, I suppose, retain its credibility by simultaneously offering a three-year rolling programme of education cuts and health cuts; but that would hardly suit the purpose.)

But if the answer was no, then the "pledge'' would be instantly downgraded to a routine expression of desire, signifying little. It is depressing that so many Tory backbenchers don't understand this. Presumably they are either frightened witless, or else they so despise their current leader that they think the question of his credibility unimportant.

If it is the latter, they are wrong. It is just possible, even now, to envisage Major battling through to a respectable election result - the underdog prime minister versus the chattering classes. It is harder to imagine them switching leaders yet again and benefiting thereby.

But if Major now promised a three-year rolling programme of tax cuts over the period straddling an election, he would be finished. It would be an act which so reeked of cynicism and desperation that nothing he said in a campaign would be taken seriously; he would have destroyed his image of himself.

This doesn't mean that the tax issue cannot work for the Conservatives. Kenneth Clarke can and will cut income-tax rates before the election. He can announce his intention of carrying on cutting them again, all things being equal, afterwards.

Major's words in Washington amounted to a broad wink at such an outcome - indeed, he went a little further than was prudent. But it was credible to hint that something would be done, rather than merely promised. The broad Tory proposition that, all things being equal, a Labour government is likelier to impose higher income taxation than a Conservative one remains widely accepted, despite the "betrayal'' of the past few years.

The distinction is between a politician - Hanley - who sounds shameless about the tax auction, and unserious about being in government; and those of his colleagues who think that the credibility of politicians in general, and the Prime Minister in particular, is worth defending, even in these degraded times. It is the distinction between panic and calmness. It is also, I suspect, the distinction between a rout and a close-run thing.