The left should applaud Osborne's inheritance tax U-turn

The Chancellor's decision to freeze the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000, rather than raise it to a £1m, is an opportunity to put the principled case for the tax.

Back in 2007, when the Tories as much as Labour assumed that boom and bust had been abolished, George Osborne told his party's conference that a Conservative government would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m. It was unacceptable, he said, that a tax "designed to hit the very rich" was increasingly borne by "ordinary people". The pledge was a political masterstroke, prompting a surge in support for the Tories and spooking Gordon Brown into abandoning plans for an early election. 

But the policy looked less impressive by the time of the general election when Osborne's declaration of an "age of austerity" sat uneasily with a pledge to cut taxes by £200,000 for the wealthiest 3,000 estates. The Chancellor, according to Janan Ganesh's recent biography, was secretely glad when the Liberal Democrats gave him political cover to abandon the pledge.

In last year's Autumn Statement, he announced that the inheritance tax threshold, frozen since 2009 at £325,000 (£650,000 for couples), would rise by a paltry 1 per cent in 2015-16 to £329,000. Now he's set to announce that, in fact, it won't rise at all. Instead, to help meet the £1bn a year cost of the coalition's social care plan, the threshold will be frozen at £329,000 until at least 2019. Many more "ordinary people", to use Osborne's phrase (although the average house price is £249,958), will be hit by inheritance tax. Were the threshold to rise in line with inflation, it would stand at £420,000 in 2019. 

In other words, Osborne is effectively increasing the tax - and he is right to do so. If "equality of opportunity" is to be more than merely a slogan, a progressive inheritance tax system is essential to prevent privilege being automatically transferred from one generation to the next. As Warren Buffett sagely observed when he campaigned against George W. Bush's plan to abolish "the death tax", one would not choose the 2020 Olympic team "by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics". It would, he added, replace a meritocracy with an "aristocracy of wealth". Inheritance tax is currently levied at 40 per cent; a progressive government would consider introducing a higher band for the wealthiest estates. 

Osborne's U-turn may have more to do with his desperate need for revenue than any conversion to progressive taxation but it is an opportunity for Labour to finally make the principled case for the tax. 

George Osborne plans to freeze the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000 until 2019. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories