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The Tories’ remarkable U-turn on the “death tax”

Do they now regret that sinister election poster?

Death Tax

One of the most misleading posters of the last election campaign was the Tories' macabre attack on Labour's "death tax" (a phrase revealingly borrowed from the US right). The poster accused Labour of planning to introduce a £20,000 levy on estates to fund social care for the elderly, ignoring that this was just one option among many being explored by ministers.

The mere mention of a compulsory levy prompted Andrew Lansley, the then shadow health secretary, to walk out of the cross-party talks on the future of care. But now, having established his own independent commission on the subject, Lansley has ruled that the panel should be free to examine compulsory funding after all.

One can hardly blame him: a "death tax" remains the fairest and most equitable way of paying for social care, but his political opportunism is galling.

The need to pander to the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and to terrify "Middle England" into voting for the Tories, took precedence over the need for a fair and objective examination of one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business. The present system, whereby only those with assets of less than £23,000 receive state funding, forces many to sell their family homes. A flat-rate levy on the estates of the deceased would allow the elderly to avoid this distressing fate.

Andy Burnham, who has made the creation of a National Care Service a main plank of his campaign, now has the chance to land some hefty blows on the coalition. As Ed Balls's standing continues to be boosted by his relentless (and highly effective) attacks on Michael Gove, this could be the issue that gives Burnham's candidacy the momentum it badly needs.