Budget 2013: George Osborne must scrap the fuel duty rise

Families urgently need help with the cost of living. The Chancellor should take action on fuel duty and then examine a 10p tax rate.

I am a moderniser. But I believe that the one area of modernisation that the Conservative Party should focus on is helping those on lower incomes, who are struggling to make a living. We need a Ronseal politics, which is easy to define. This is not about getting hung up about backgrounds, or what school you went to. In fact, most families would love to send their children to posh schools. But it's about being on the side of the poorest, even if we don't believe in the big state redistributionist welfarism of the Labour Party. David Cameron’s declaration that "Conservatives are not the party of the better off, but the party for the want-to-be-better-off" should run through everything that we do - every speech, every Budget line, every policy decision. It must be our narrative, our metaphorical "washing line", holding all the clothes pegs together.

 
This means picking some battles. Policies only get attention if there is a scrap to get them through. I will come on to the cost of living in a moment, but other suggestions might include support for the family around housing and the right to buy; the cost of childcare; and Michael Gove’s education reforms. These need to be pursued relentlessly, both through intellectual firepower and personal stories. A mirror image of what Labour have done on the 50p rate.
 
Modernisation also means being counter-intuitive. Conservatives should not be afraid to appropriate the language of the left, or build alliances with trade unions, pressure groups and the Big Society. We must show that our policies are compassionate. Language and manner are incredibly important.
 
So when it comes to the Budget, this means a focus on lower earners and the cost of living. There is no more toxic tax than fuel duty. In my constituency of Harlow, the question is not whether you can afford to have a car, but whether you can afford not to. Like it or not, Britain is a great car economy. Seventy one per cent of us still drive to work. Rocketing fuel prices are also draining investment away from the more productive parts of the economy. The AA estimates that a 3p rise at the pumps switches an extra £1.8m into fuel sales, out of peoples’ pockets, every day. In 2011, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco blamed fuel prices for the GDP slowdown, saying: "Filling up the family car has gone up 70 per cent in two years, causing what was a steady recovery to go sideways."
 
Petrol prices are also an issue of social justice. In reality, fuel duty is a tax on everything as it pushes up the cost of public transport and road haulage. In November 2011, the ONS stated that fuel taxes are shockingly regressive. Two years ago, an ordinary car-owner in Harlow was spending £1,700 a year on filling up the family car. Sadly, this trend has got worse, not better. According to the RAC Foundation, 800,000 British families now spend a quarter of their income on running a car. The poorest decile of households in the UK are shelling out at least 27 per cent of their disposable income on buying and running a vehicle. This is a national scandal. Given that two-thirds of the pump-price of petrol and diesel is tax, this is largely a crisis of our own making. All sensible people agree that taxes should be broadly progressive. That is why fuel duty needs reform.
 
George Osborne gets this. He has cancelled or delayed every single fuel duty rise that Labour left behind in their 2009 and 2010 Budgets - and he has done this at a time of immense strain on the public finances.
 
Fuel is now 10p cheaper per litre as a result. According to the AA, that has meant £6m more for families to spend in Britain’s real economy, every single day; £2.2bn more annually left in Britain’s collective pocket. Given his record, I am urging the Chancellor to go further in this Budget and to scrap September’s planned rise in fuel duty.
 
The second campaign that I am pressing for - in the longer term - is a major tax reform: something that is easily understood; is totemic; and helps those on lowest incomes. Namely: the restoration of the 10p income tax-rate. I believe that progressive reductions of income tax must be a moral mission for Conservatives. For example, a 10p band introduced above the current personal allowance (say between £9,440 and £12,000) would hand back more than £250 a year to a worker on minimum wage, and would help them to earn much closer to a living wage in cash-terms. Conservatives could also look to widen out a 10p band over time. This could help more middle earners as well.
 
Restoring a proper, generous 10p rate would be totemic. People would notice it. In my view, Ed Miliband's half-hearted conversion to the idea was a missed opportunity, as Labour’s proposals would only mean an extra £34 a year for a family (according to Policy Exchange) and even their new "mansion tax" doesn't fund it all. Such a tax will set a dangerous precedent, and no doubt will rapidly become a "homes tax" as the band gets lower and lower. That's not what Britain needs. Besides, the coalition have already brought in a de facto "mansion tax" by hiking stamp duty on more expensive homes. What we need instead is a substantive income tax reform - as set out on Great Gordon Brown Repeal Bill
 
Some people say, "just keep raising the personal allowance". I think this would be unwise. Everyone should pay something towards public services, even if only a little. Nigel Lawson started off as a Chancellor prioritising tax allowances. But later he changed course. He said: "I wished to create a large constituency in favour of income-tax reductions. The last thing I wanted to do was to reduce the size of that constituency by taking people out of tax altogether."
 
Consider a second analogy. Suppose that you and your friends have have gone out to an expensive restaurant for a large meal, and finally it comes to splitting the bill. Under my proposals, most people would still contribute something, albeit the poorest would pay the least as a share of their income. But is it really sensible that more and more of the table have a totally free ride, on the grounds that this "avoids complexity"? As a Conservative, this makes me uneasy. What lavish choices will your friends order next time, if they know that you are paying the cheque?
 
For the Budget next week, money is tight. So how might we pay for a freeze in fuel duty? There are many places to start: restricting elderly benefits to poorer pensioners, for example, or ringfencing the extra revenues that are expected from the new 45p rate of income tax. But it is striking, how one-sided this debate is. Whenever one argues for tax cuts, there is a clamour of voices saying, "how are you going to pay for it?" And yet, when large unfunded rises in government spending are announced - Vince Cable’s £1bn "British business bank" for example, or several of DECC’s carbon schemes - nobody really asks where the money is coming from. Fiscal discipline must be about controlling spending, as much as a broad tax base.
 
But, however it is paid for, families urgently need help with the cost of living. If Conservatives are to win the next general election, it will be because we have helped fundamentally with things like the cost of filling up the family car. Fuel duty has become a toxic tax. Keeping petrol and diesel costs down will reduce poverty, help to boost jobs, and secure the GDP growth that we so desperately need. When the economy recovers, then we can look at other reforms - such as the 10p rate - but what we need right now is a cost of living Budget
 
Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

 

Fuel duty protestors stand outside Parliament on March 7, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow. He tweets at @halfon4harlowMP

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle