I would like to revisit the Budget, now that the Government has climbed down from the changes to NICs announced in the Budget last week. At the time I said that the decision to tackle NICs would face stiff opposition and certainly was not the path of least resistance. Boy, was that an understatement.
But when you take away all the huffing and puffing, what really happened was a well-reasoned 60p-a-week tax rise to partly cover the costs of benefits that the self-employed now enjoy has been ditched in the face of opposition from the Tory backbenches and some foaming at the mouth from the right-wing press. This was no sneaky stealth tax. It was not a tax raid. It was done in broad daylight. At a time when we have a crunch in public service funding and Brexit mayhem looming, the Chancellor couldn’t make even a modest - and honest - change to the tax code to make it a bit fairer. That says rather a lot.
It says a lot about the extent to which the Government is hemmed in by the 2015 manifesto, which ruled out a whole raft of tax rises as a trap for Labour. It says a lot about how vulnerable the Government is to even modest backbench rebellion. And it shows that right-wing press is happy to savage the government, even at the moment it stands on the edge of delivering what it wanted above all else: Brexit. So, is this one of those tactical retreats governments inevitably make due to a political miscalculation? Or does it hint at something deeper?
Which leads me to the clickbaity title of my article. There has been a debate in my office for months about the logic of Theresa May going to the country to secure a solid and more biddable majority. I have consistently held the view that this is not going to happen because May wouldn’t want the fuss and disruption of an election if she can avoid it. It doesn’t seem to be her style. But one of my colleagues who is steeped in the ways of Westminster Toryism has got money riding on a 2017 election.
Does he have a point? The fallout from Philip Hammond’s relatively restrained budget has pitilessly exposed the contradiction at the heart of this government: its poll lead is imperious (19 points or thereabouts) but its ability to transact business in Parliament is marginal. Labour aren’t at the races so the opposition is almost entirely internal. What a deeply unsatisfactory position to be in. There are only a couple of responses to this problem: go out and get a stonking majority (and say bai to Osbo’s manifesto!) or else press on and de-risk the policy agenda to within an inch of its life so that you can’t be held hostage by restive backbenchers.
You only have to look at the growing pile of cans stacking up at the end of the road to see that the current strategy appears to be the latter. Heathrow, housing and adult social care all need serious attention but will need long and careful consensus building. There are also new cans which are unkickable, because they relate to Brexit. Most notable of these is the Great Repeal Bill but could also include another half or dozen Bills on issues such as immigration. Unlike the Article 50 Bill, the Government will struggle to get its text through untouched. Then there’s a second Scottish Independence Referendum in the offing, problems in Northern Ireland.
There’s a wildcard too: the rather difficult situation regarding Conservative election expenses in marginal seats. The sitting MP in Thanet South was interviewed by police under caution yesterday about whether election expenses were misreported in his campaign against Nigel Farage. A decision will soon have to be taken as to whether to take the matter further. Seventeen police forces are investigating similar alleged infractions of campaign funding rules according to the BBC. In the worst case, this could result in a number of 2015 results being voided and by-elections being run. Could that be a catalyst for a new General Election to kill the matter? Of all the slow burners, this is the one I am watching the most.
And a footnote on the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. I am not sure how much this is a serious barrier to an early election. The Government could just repeal it.
So we have a situation which can be summarised as follows: there won’t be an early election unless there is. I know that’s the kind of insight you come here for. You are welcome.