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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.