David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire in the 2019 general election.
The Government’s plan for increases in National Insurance (NI) contributions to fund higher health spending and increased health spending has provoked a furious response from some on the right.
It “sounded the death knell to Conservatism” and drove “a coach and horses not only through the Tory Party manifesto, but Toryism itself” according to Camilla Tominey in the Daily Telegraph. In the same paper, Allister Heath fumed “shame on Boris Johnson, and shame on the Conservative Party…they have disgraced themselves, lied to their voters, repudiated their principles and treated millions of their supporters with utter contempt” and that “an entire intellectual tradition now lies trashed”.
In the Times, Iain Martin declared that “at this rate, the Conservative Party might as well rename itself the Labour Party” and in the Spectator, Fraser Nelson questioned whether the “Boris Johnson” definition of conservatism as “a protection racket, where the tools of the state are used to extract money from minimum-wage workers and pass it on to the better-off?”
Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings has argued that “if you think you’re ‘conservative’, and you give those speeches about ‘enterprise’ and ‘responsibility’, why would you support making many more dependent on state money and bureaucracy?”
It’s all jolly strong stuff. And there are elements of the criticisms with which I have sympathy. I share the scepticism about prioritising a tax-funded social care cap, in that those who will gain most are those who have the most (thanks to rising house prices) and that is the wrong priority for public money.
There is a need for risk-pooling, but I think Peter Lilley’s proposal on this site is worth close examination (I suggested something similar when in Government). I also dislike NI as the choice of tax because of the narrowness of its base – and the distortions that this causes – and the dishonesty of employers NICs (no, Prime Minister, it is not a tax on business: it is a tax on jobs and employees’ wages).
In fairness to the Government, raising taxes is difficult, NI is less unpopular than income tax (largely because much of the public misunderstand it) and, being cynical, it is not surprising that Ministers exploit that misunderstanding.
Having said all that, is it a fair criticism to state that Johnson’s Health and Social Care plan undermines everything for which the Conservative Party stands? For a number of reasons (some of which reflect better on the Party than others), I think not.
First, the Conservative Party has an honourable record of fiscal responsibility. When the public finances are in trouble, Conservative governments have been willing to raise taxes in order to put the public finances on a sound footing – not least Margaret Thatcher’s, when Geoffrey Howe raised taxes in 1979 and 1981. The advocates of Reaganomics always find this disappointing, but responsible Conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will pay for themselves (as they did not for Reagan).
In reality, even putting aside any new commitments on social care spending, the prospects for the public finances are not great. Not only do we face some immediate challenges (Covid catch up, net zero and levelling up), but demography and rising health expectations will mean a tax-funded healthcare system will require higher taxes.
Some on the Right will argue for further cuts in spending or an alternative health model, but the political feasibility of such an approach is highly dubious. If we are going to spend more (and we are), taxes will need to rise to pay for it.
Second, the idea that a Conservative government prioritising homeowners is a complete break from the past does not bear scrutiny. Look at the arguments that Thatcher made in resisting the removal of mortgage interest tax relief (although the Treasury rightly prevailed in the end), or the general dislike of inheritance tax from the wider Conservative world. The reaction to Theresa May’s social care policy in 2017 suggests that the instinct to ‘defend our people’ (and their inheritances) amongst Conservatives is a formidable one.
Third, complaints about the Conservative Party not being the party of business are (how can I put this?) a little rich from some quarters. Imposing higher taxes, whether on employment or profits, is not great for business – but making it substantially harder to trade with our largest trading partner is a bigger problem.
It is all very well complaining about the anti-business instincts of this Conservative government, but hard to do if you have been a cheerleader for anti-business policies or, for that matter, Boris “f*** business” Johnson. If your expectation is that the Conservative Party would automatically be on the pro-business side of the argument, you have not been paying much attention in recent years.
The reason why the Conservative Party moved in the direction of an anti-business Brexit is that was where the votes were. And this brings me to the fourth and most important observation about the Conservative Party.
It has one purpose: to be in power. At one level, it is not possible for it to repudiate its principles because it does not have any. This can give it a tremendous advantage in a democracy because the public, as a whole, does not have political principles either – opinions and political alignments shift over time.
The Conservatives have been protectionists and free traders, the party of Empire and the party that facilitated the retreat from Empire, Keynesians and monetarists, the party of price controls and wages policies and the party of market economics, the party of Europe and the party of Brexit. It never stays on the wrong side of public opinion for long.
What is happening to our politics at the moment is that party support is realigning along cultural lines and, as a consequence, much more along generational lines. This has worked to the advantage of the Conservatives, so it is no surprise that it pursues policies that prioritises health spending over lower taxes for people of working age.
Polling suggests that the new, Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives at the last election are notably more left-wing on economic issues than traditional Conservative voters who are, in turn, to the left of Conservative MPs. The decision was made to pursue those voters and, if the Conservative Party wants to keep them, it cannot risk the NHS collapsing under financial pressure – which means higher spending and, ultimately, higher taxes.
Johnson’s critics are right to think that this will not be the end of it. Last week’s package was supposed to be an answer to how we fund social care. The reality is that it was a package to boost spending on the NHS. As Damian Green has argued on ConHome, it is hard to see how resources will be taken out of the NHS and switched to social care in three years’ time – and that, at that point, some expensive social care commitments will come into effect.
here will another funding gap and, on the basis of last week’s revealed preference, a further increase in the Health and Social Care Levy. Those who see the purpose of the Conservative Party as delivering low taxes are right to be glum.