November 27, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
I’ve read the manifestos so you don’t have to. As the only political party with a realistic chance of getting a Parliamentary majority, and thus the only political party who might get properly held to account for delivering their manifesto, the Conservatives’ offering had to be necessarily low-key.
Don’t be fooled, however, by the offer of no income tax, VAT or national insurance increases. This isn’t a party, or Government, that plays by normal rules. Those commitments will possibly contribute towards getting them their majority, and put ‘clear blue water’ between them and Labour. However, there is simply no way they can deliver their spending policies, nor deal with the uncertainty of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, whilst having their hands completely tied on tax.
Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies thinks that the tax lock is simply ‘bad policy’, because it ties the Government’s hands in a world that is very uncertain. “That’s a constraint the chancellor may come to regret”, said Johnson. “It is also part of a fundamentally damaging narrative — that we can have the public services we want, with more money for health and pensions and schools — without paying for them. We can’t,” I think the Conservatives may live to regret it.
But, no need to fear. The Conservatives might get an electoral mandate to carry out their manifesto, but the way our political system works is that a Government also gets an additional ‘Doctor’s mandate’ to react to uncertainties and shocks. So, for instance if there ended up being a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit at the end of the implementation period (December 2020 – and many think this is possibly ‘a plan’), the Conservatives could argue that in order to stabilise the economy they may need to relax their manifesto commitments in the short term, and perhaps raise one of the taxes they mentioned.
Be in no doubt, for a Conservative Party this manifesto is relatively full of spending commitments and giveaways. Thousands more police officers, nurses and teachers. Money for the environment, childcare, hospital parking, roads etc. In the absence of tax rises, the Tories will claim that they will fund it by economic growth from ‘Getting Brexit Done’, although in the end it will have to be borrowing to fill the gap.
So let’s go to the centrepiece of the manifesto and the entire Conservative campaign, ‘Getting Brexit done’. To be clear, a Conservative majority will mean that Boris Johnson’s deal will get through Parliament and be ratified, which means that Britain leaves the EU on January 31st. Brexit done? Nope.
The UK will still be in the EU until the end of the transition period, which comes on the 31st December 2020. Only the simplest of free trade deals could be done by then by that point. You will hear Conservative politicians argue that because we already have regulatory convergence it will be far easier to get a trade deal done than if we started from the scratch (which is why it took seven years for the Canadian deal to be done). But there is no way that the members of the EU will accept the UK picking and choosing their regulatory divergence, having its cake and eating it, whatever the metaphor, in the six months needed for a deal to be announced then ratified. Brexit will not be done for a decade, whoever is in charge when the UK leaves.
In the end though, this was not a radical manifesto. It is actually a rather conservative one (and I mean the small c). As was mentioned by a journalist at the manifesto launch , £3bn increase in spending on public services versus £83bn from Labour. £8bn of new investment versus £80bn from Labour. It is a choice between piecemeal, incremental changes, with quite a lot of it aimed at Leave-voting areas outside London. It is a manifesto that (although I am sceptical about the no tax rises) has a chance of being delivered. It is 59 pages (Labour’s is double that), for a reason.
It also has clearly been carefully checked for ‘gotcha’ policies. In particular, given the complete inability of political parties to reach any consensus on how to fund social care as the population ages, there is very little about it in the manifesto. After all, when Labour tried to deal with it in 2010 the Tories called it a ‘death tax’ and when the Tories tried to deal with it in 2017 Labour called it a ‘dementia tax’. It won’t be solved without proper cross-party input.
Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the use of the term ‘One Nation’ by Boris Johnson and Conservatives. One Nation sounds like ‘bringing the country together’, but the genesis of One Nation was in Benjamin Disraeli’s (PM 1874-1880) concerns that the poor were about to revolt (hence his insistence that ‘the Palace is only safe if the cottage is happy’). One Nation is really about allowing sufficient crumbs to fall off the plates of the rich to stop the poor rioting. One Nation is only a successful credo to people who don’t understand it.
Anyway, there has rarely been a clearer choice between the two main parties at an election. We are back to 1945, with the outcome being possibly as life-changing for people. Which is why you should make sure you turn up to vote for the outcome.