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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. He usually writes about politics. 

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times