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Conservatives offer a five-year freeze in tax cuts: will it have any effect?

The Conservatives' unworkable bribe sounds too good to be true - because it is.

The Conservatives will today seek to reclaim the political agenda with a promise to outlaw any rises in income tax, VAT or national insurance for the next five years. That’s on top of an extra £8bn a year, a cut and a cap in train fares. . . and they’ll do all this while moving the budget into surplus by 2020.

Presumably, if the polls haven’t moved by next Tuesday, they’ll throw in a free unicorn for every adult in a swing seat. 

I don’t know where to start with this, honestly. The pledge is obviously crazy – what happens if you outlaw tax rises, and say, a bank collapses? Or the Eurozone needs a cross-country stimulus to prevent sucking the whole continent into recession? Or Britain’s defence needs are suddenly radically different?

Will it work? As one Labour MP observed recently, “people like free stuff”. People who’ve had a fairly awful half-decade or more like free stuff even more.

More importantly, it’s the first Tory message of the short campaign that can be broken down into a pleasing goodie for a two-minute news bulletin. Repeated over and over again for the campaign’s final seven days, coupled with further warnings about the SNP, it might be enough for the Conservatives to blunt Labour’s advantage in England and Wales and remain in office.

But will it? Visiting the Welsh marginals last week, the number one reason people gave for backing the Conservatives was that they needed time to finish the job, something I'm told is a repeated refrain on the doorsteps. If there is money available for a freeze in tax rates and further spending, it doesn't sound as if the mission is half-done and Labour are too big a risk. It sounds as if the good times are here again, and maybe it's time to give Miliband a crack of the whip. 

David Cameron and George Osborne have spent the last five years saying that there is no money left, that we have to tighten our belts, that the recovery is either just around the corner, or too fragile to risk Labour’s extra borrowing and more debt. That appeals to what one Conservative describes as the country’s “Blitz spirit” – and means that, for all the pain of the last few years, people are still inclined to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt. And it's not so long ago since the coalition's final budget, when Osborne had the opportunity to hand out tax cuts - but didn't. It's one thing for the Tories to have a message that is attacked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but quite another to have a policy that runs contrary to everything they've done and said for the last five years. Far from turning the election in their favour, they may have just tilted the battle in Miliband's direction.

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

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.