The Conservatives can't be all things to all people
The election campaign is less than a week old and Theresa May’s efforts to cast herself as a strong and principled leader are already shaking as she tries to do what the Lib Dems have traditionally done best — be all things to all people.
Over the weekend it was tax. On Friday, the Chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC in Washington that he wanted ‘flexibility” on taxation’, a clear hint that the Conservatives cannot and will not commit to not increasing taxes in the next Parliament.
No sooner had he said it than the Tory spin machine went into action, with Theresa May declaring that, unlike Labour, she and her party was committed to a lower tax economy.
Labour’s mission over the course of the campaign will be to expose this myth espoused by a party who, in the budget in March, sought to increase the taxes paid by the self-employed.
In February, the Institute for Fiscal Studies observed that under the Tories ‘tax is set to rise as a share of national income to its highest level since 1986–87’ as part of efforts to plug a deficit that the current Government seems incapable of addressing. As the IFS went on to note:
“£17 billion of tax rises are planned over this parliament relative to 2015–16. Tax (and non-tax) receipts are expected to rise above 37% of national income for the first time since 1986–87.”
It is not just on tax that the Tories need to be exposed for the contradictions in policy announcements that run the risk of them being elected without ever giving firm commitments on anything.
Take immigration. The Prime Minister has re-committed her party to cutting immigration to the tens of thousands, yet speaking on Question Time last month, Brexit Secretary David Davis suggested that far from being cut, levels of immigration could rise in Brexit Britain. He told the programme that when it comes to immigrants ‘from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants. That is how it will no doubt work.’
On Brexit, Theresa May argues that giving her a sweeping victory would give her a mandate to plough through parliament whatever deal the Conservatives put to the people at this election. This however is utter drivel. With 27 other member states, the prospects of May getting everything out of a Brexit deal that she puts to the people is slim at best. Take trade as an example.
In January, David Davis told Parliament that this Brexit Government will seek a ‘comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.’
Now read the words of Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister who will lead for the European Parliament on the Brexit negotiations which will ultimately have to approve any final deal, who has written in the Observer:
“Britain will be leaving the European single market that Mrs Thatcher pushed for, we have been informed. Leaving this single market has logical consequences: an end to the free movement of people, goods and services between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
The positions of Mr Davis and Mr Verhofstadt cannot both be true. Labour needs to expose the fact that if the Conservatives were to go back into government after the election but failed to get the kind of Brexit deal they want (as is highly likely), that would not represent a mandate for parliament press ahead with any old deal, however damaging it might be.
Then there is the union of the UK. On the one hand the prime minister expresses her personal desire for Scotland to remain in the UK, while simultaneously arguing that any MP elected from Scotland on an SNP ticket would have no right to have a say in the government of the UK. All it says to those who vote SNP is that their vote is not valid. Little wonder then that the Tories pose one of the biggest threats to the UK as currently constituted.
And there is more. Why will this Brexit Government not commit to the extra cash for the NHS promised to the voters during last year’s referendum? This election provides the opportunity for the voters to hold those who promised this to account.
And why will Theresa May not admit the real reason for this election is her weak leadership — a fear that despite having a majority in the House of Commons she could not get her hard Brexit plans through her own Parliamentary party?
The Tories are an inconsistent mess. The challenge for progressives in this election is to expose such contradictions to avoid a Conservative Government being elected by not really promising or being specific about anything.
Ed Jacobs is a contributing editor at Left Foot ForwardSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.