George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
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When will the Tories make their inheritance tax pledge?

Osborne has at least one big card left to play - but it might help the Conservatives less than they hope. 

How many bullets do Labour and the Tories have left to fire? That is the question being asked in Westminster as the polls remain deadlocked. Ed Miliband's team believe that the Tories are "running out of road" having launched major assaults on Labour's spending plans and its "anti-business" stance to little effect. 

But one card that the Conservatives do have left to play is inheritance tax. David Cameron and George Osborne have repeatedly stated that they will announce plans to significantly increase the threshold before the election. The latter told the Sunday Times in January: "I have taken steps to help with inheritance, making sure that people can pass on their pension to their children. People can pass on their ISAs. David Cameron has made it clear, as have I, that we believe inheritance tax is a tax that should be paid by the rich and we will set out our further approach closer to the election." It was Osborne's pledge to raise the starting level to £1m in his 2007 conference speech that spooked Gordon Brown into calling off the election and that earned the Chancellor his reputation as a strategic grandmaster. 

Next week's Budget would be a natural opportunity for him to repeat this gambit. The Tories have briefed that the statement will include separate, non-coalition sections on the tax and welfare changes a future Conservative government would make, such as reducing the benefit cap to £23,000 and raising the 40p tax threshold to £50,000. 

But while cutting inheritance tax is usually regarded as an unambiguous vote winner, it's worth recalling that at the 2010 general election it partly harmed the Tories by reinforcing their reputation as the party of the rich (with Gordon Brown lambasting them for planning to cut taxes for "the wealthiest 3,000 estates"). Indeed, in his biography of Osborne, Janan Ganesh revealed that the Chancellor was secretely glad when the Lib Dems forced him to drop the policy. 

Any new pledge would risk having the same effect while also making it harder than ever for the Chancellor to argue that his sums add up. But this fiscal firework is one of the few things that could still change the game. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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