George Osborne and Ed Balls walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne refuses to rule out raising VAT after promising £2bn for NHS

The Chancellor says he"doesn't have any plans" to increase the tax: the same phrase he used before the 2010 increase. 

George Osborne's promise of £2bn extra for the NHS is an attempt to neutralise one of Labour's strongest attack lines. By providing new money for the health service in Wednesday's Autumn Statement, the Chancellor hopes to render the opposition's pledge to spend £2.5bn extra irrelevant. In a shameless act of political plagiarism, he used his appearance on the Marr show to announce a further increase: the £1.1bn the government will receive in bank fines over the foreign exchange rate scandal will be used to fund improved GP services (Ed Balls last weekend called for the money to be spent on the NHS). By arguing that the £2bn of new funding has only been made possible by the Tories' "long-term economic plan" and their commitment to deficit reduction, Osborne aims to use Labour's weakness on fiscal responsibility to undermine its strength on the health service (the issue on which it polls best). 

In his own interview on Marr, Balls described the extra £2bn as "crisis money" made necessary by the coalition's "mismanagement" of the service. He also questioned whether it was merely a "one-off bung". But the Tory Treasury Twitter account was quick to reply that the money would be "baselined" (i.e. included in new calculations of future NHS spending) making it a permanent rather than a temporary increase (something confirmed by Osborne in his appearance). 

But the awkward question remains: how will all this be paid for? After Osborne's NHS spending promise, it is even harder to see how he will meet his pledge to eliminate the deficit by the end of the next parliament while simultaneously avoiding further tax rises and cutting taxes by £7.2bn (increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the 40p rate threshold to £50,000). Most economists believe that he will fail on at least one of these fronts. 

It was telling, then, that Osborne repeatedly refused to rule out raising VAT, stating that he "doesn't have any plans" to do so: the exact formulation used before the 2010 increase. Given the historic tendency of governments to raise taxes immediately after the election, it is right to be suspicious. But Osborne clearly believes that the Tories' polling strength on the deficit means that they can get away with such fiscal recklessness in a way Labour never could. 

After today's high octane politics, the opposition's hope is that Osborne's intervention will only raise the salience of the NHS and ultimately benefit them. The Chancellor's gamble is that it will achieve the reverse. By at least giving the appearance of providing an answer to the funding crisis (Labour would still spend more) he hopes to deny Balls and Ed Miliband any benefit from running on this issue. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.