How the Tories and the Lib Dems broke their VAT promises

David Cameron insisted that the Tories had “absolutely no plans” to raise VAT.

As VAT rises to a record high of 20 per cent, I thought it might be worth looking back at the promises the Lib Dems and the Tories made on the subject during the election.

The Lib Dems famously made their opposition to a VAT increase a centrepiece of their general election campaign, warning of a "Tory VAT bombshell". They were right about that but, presumably, never planned to help drop it.

At that time, Nick Clegg said: "We see absolutely no reason to raise VAT because we have done our homework, we have identified where money can be generated and where money can be saved."


The Conservatives

The Tories' VAT promises have received less scrutiny but, if anything, their disingenuity is worse. Throughout the election campaign, David Cameron repeatedly stated that his party had "absolutely no plans to raise VAT".

He said:

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up tax.

This falls some way short of a guarantee not to raise VAT, but it also gives no hint of a tax rise that Cameron was planning all along. The grim conclusion is that the Tories hid this tax increase from the voters for electoral purposes.

More strikingly, in May 2009, the Conservative leader suggested that he would never raise a tax that "hits the poorest the hardest". As he said:

You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it's very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you. Any sales tax, anything that goes on purchases that you make in shops tends to . . . if you look at it, where VAT goes now it doesn't go on food, obviously, but it goes very, very widely and VAT is a more regressive tax than income tax or council tax.

Both parties have since attempted to justify the VAT rise by arguing that "things were even worse than we thought". But this claim does not bear scrutiny. The Lib Dems and the Tories were fully aware of the size of the Budget deficit and, just ten days after the coalition was formed, the deficit was revised downwards from £163.4bn to £156bn, having previously stood at £178bn. The VAT rise was a political choice, not an economic necessity.

Moreover, £12.4bn of the £13.5bn raised by the increase is being used to pay for tax cuts elsewhere, including to National Insurance and to corporation tax. In the Guardian, Philippe Legrain sets out a range of alternatives to raising VAT, including new taxes on financial transactions, carbon and land.

We are still waiting for a convincing justification for a tax rise that is not only unfair, but also economically reckless.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.