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23 March 2022

Rishi Sunak announces state subsidies for drivers, tax rises for everyone else

If there is a war on the motorist, it’s one the motorist is winning.

By Jonn Elledge

Once he’d stopped tastelessly banging about how the true lesson of Russia’s war on Ukraine was the importance of sound money, it turned out that Rishi Sunak’s top priority in today’s Spring Statement was to help the British motorist. When it comes to surprises, this is very much on the “papal religion mystery finally solved” sort of level: it was so widely briefed in advance, in a “hey, newspapers, please write nice things about me” kind of a way, that we did, quite literally, know it was coming.

It was unsurprising, too, because it fits with a long tradition, adhered to by both Tory chancellors in general and Sunak specifically, of what one might term “Some Are More Equal Than Others” policies: measures designed to look like help for Hard-Working Families(tm), but which mysteriously manage, time and again, to assist demographics likely to vote Tory vastly more than those who don’t.

Driving is hardly restricted to the elite, of course. People without trust funds use their cars to get to work, too, because public transport in most places is awful, and you’d have to be out of touch and — worse — a Londoner to think otherwise. Fuel duty does affect a lot of people, which is why they’re so constantly angry about it.

Photo by Peter Cade/Getty Images

All the same, the numbers don’t lie: the wealthy drive more. The poorest tenth of households are many times more likely than the richest tenth not to own a car. Analysis from the New Economics Foundation has found that just 7 per cent of the benefit from the fuel duty cut will go to the poorest fifth of households, compared with 33 per cent to the richest fifth. So today’s fuel duty cut is a subsidy for the rich, disguised as a tax cut for all — one which, as it happens, runs counter to the government’s own policies to reduce our carbon emissions.

In that, it fits with Sunak’s otherwise baffling decision to promise income tax cuts while raising national insurance. These two policies seem, at first glance, to cancel each other out, until you remember that the former tax is levied on pensions, while the latter is restricted to working-age voters. Which of those two groups is more likely to vote Tory? Bingo.

We hear a lot about the “war on motorists” in this country. I’ve often thought, given both the looming climate apocalypse and the fact that car-free places are just nicer, that such a war would be a terrific idea, but I’ve seen precious little evidence of such a thing actually happening. Many of the cycle lanes or pedestrian zones put in place during the first lockdown have since been ripped out; drivers are still first in line for help at a time of financial crisis. (Those on universal credit don’t make the list at all.) If there is a war on the motorist, it’s one the motorist is winning.

All of which might haunt Sunak when he thinks about next March, when his generous fuel duty cut is due to expire. At that point, we’ll be just 14 months off an election — an interesting choice of moment to declare war on motorists after all.

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