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17 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:22am

The most important question about new Conservative MPs: how much do they care about debt?

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives were elected on a manifesto that made up for what it lacked in length with incredible specificity: it’s just that the specific pledges cannot be reconciled with one another. Boris Johnson has committed both to increase public spending and to keep income tax, national insurance and value-added tax flat or falling – while also reducing debt as a proportion of the United Kingdom’s GDP over the course of the parliament. 

Complicating that further is his pledge to negotiate a Brexit deal in one year – one that would take us out of both the single market and customs union, maximizing the United Kingdom’s regulatory autonomy, but minimizing its level of market access to the European Union, and with it shrinking and/or eliminating parts of British manufacturing.

The policy calculations around Brexit are sometimes complicated, but in this case they are simple: you cannot have a Brexit that prioritises increasing the United Kingdom’s sovereignity while also increasing public spending without increasing the UK’s debt pile and/or raising taxes.

Many at Westminster, looking at that trade-off, assume that it will be Johnson’s Brexit promises that are given the heave-ho: that he will seek a softer Brexit in order to be able to keep his promises on tax-and-spend. I’m dubious: throughout a career in which he has changed positions freely, the one thing Johnson has stuck to consistently is Euroscepticism, whether that was in his exaggerations about EU rules as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, his decision to back Vote Leave in 2016, or his resignation from the cabinet in July 2018, at a time when his standing among MPs was very low and it was far from certain that walking out would revive his hopes.

In addition, even where he minded to, I think people are in danger of inflating the size of the Conservative majority. Labour, like the Conservatives in 1997, 2001 and 2005, went down to a landslide defeat. But the Conservatives, unlike Labour in 1997 and 2001, do not have a landslide majority. Like Labour in 2005 they have a comfortable, but not impregnable majority. Just 40 Conservative MPs can defeat the government, and while rebellions of that size are not normal, they aren’t rare either. The Conservatives would be very, very lucky or very, very disciplined to get to the end of the parliament without at least one. It’s easier to rebel when you’re doing so with the grain of your party’s grassroots, as any MP rebelling to prevent a softer Brexit would be. So it’s not just that I think Johnson will not be inclined to “betray the ERG”: even if he does, his Brexit ultras have a get-out clause because they can still defeat him in the Commons if they want to.

The easiest promise to break is that pledge on debt: going into the next election with debt rising rather than falling would allow the Conservatives to keep their promises on health and the police. Fiscal conservativism has never been particularly important to Boris Johnson but it is important to many Conservative MPs: however, unlike the European Research Group, there is no organised caucus of fiscally conservative MPs so this is definitely an easier promise to break. When you talk to Conservative MPs you will hear a lot about how much fiscal conservativism matters to them: but they have very rarely been tested on that issue. It’s one thing to say you care about something: it’s quite another to rebel against your own government’s budget to enforce that. We know that committed Brexiteers will do so. It is far from clear that the Tory party’s fiscal hawks are as willing to break ranks. 

There’s an important “but” here: that promise is easy to break if we assume that the costs of government borrowing in the United Kingdom remain roughly as they are. That condition is not certain to apply indefinitely: and if increased borrowing becomes untenable for the Conservative government, then the contradictory pledges that the party has made might prove tricky to navigate. 

A lot depends on two known unknowns: just how tolerant the new Conservative intake is of increasing government debt, and whether or not increased government debt is something that the British economy is really able to bear.

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