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12 September 2023

Tory wrangles overshadow Sunak’s G20 return

With discussions over whether to ditch the pensions triple lock and more Tory groups being founded, the battle for the soul of the party continues to rage.

By Freddie Hayward

Though Rishi Sunak returned to Westminster yesterday (11 September) to report on the weekend’s G20 summit in India, the Prime Minister cannot escape the events of the day.

The pensions triple lock – under which the state pension rises in line with whichever is highest out of average earnings growth, inflation or 2.5 per cent – has been sacred to Tories for more than a decade. It secures the older vote, the thinking goes. But over the weekend, the PM failed to confirm that the lock would feature in the party’s manifesto at the next election. And now, William Hague – who has the Prime Minister’s ear and is listened to within the party – paves the way in today’s Times for the party to ditch the policy. He writes:

“The IFS [Institute for Fiscal Studies] estimate is that the triple lock will cost between £5bn and £45bn extra, per year, on top of inflation, by 2050. Over 50 years, the Office for Budget Responsibility says it could add up to nearly £1trn. Our entire GDP is just over £2trn. A runaway train is a fair analogy, because we don’t know where it will end up, or at what speed; it’s nearly going too fast already for the train drivers to slow it down, but if they don’t it will end in disaster.”

If the Tories did scrap the policy it would signify two things. First, the older generations’ monopoly on political attention might be waning (though we should always remember that at £10k a year, the state pension is hardly extravagant). Second, the state of the public finances and the economy is forcing policy changes that were unspeakable only a few years ago.

Labour would be happy if the Tories made the move, too. It would give the opposition space to drop the policy – or at least call for a review – ahead of the next election. The party needs all the help it can get to reach Rachel Reeves’s fiscal rules, and saving money on state pensions would be a start.

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The New New New Conservatives

It started with the Northern Research Group, then the New Conservatives and last night – in the Morpeth Arms pub, a mile from parliament – the Northern Caucus was launched. This is not a parliamentary group but will bring together MPs, centre-right thinkers and academics to champion policies that bolster the north. The Northern Caucus is linked to the influential think tank Onward, where the caucus’s founder, Callum Newton, is a senior researcher.

The caucus should be seen as a new phalanx being pushed into the battle for the soul of the Conservative Party. The establishing of yet another Tory grouping speaks to the unease among those who want the party to abide by its 2019 manifesto as opposed to where Rishi Sunak is taking the party.

There is a lot of talk about which direction the Conservatives will head if it loses the next election. But these groups are as much about controlling its direction before the next election. That’s because if Red Wall MPs can get the party to reflect their concerns now, they have a better chance of retaining their seats. Controlling the government’s agenda is about more than ideology.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: The case for a minister for men]

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