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.