Jeremy Hunt’s seat under threat as voters put NHS ahead of tax perks

<span>Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has faced pressure from prime minister Rishi Sunak to deliver pre-election tax cuts. </span><span>Photograph: Paul Ellis/PA</span>
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has faced pressure from prime minister Rishi Sunak to deliver pre-election tax cuts. Photograph: Paul Ellis/PA

For the past few weeks, chancellor Jeremy Hunt has had a clear mission.

Under pressure from Rishi Sunak, he and his Treasury officials have been poring over their options for pre-election tax cuts that the prime minister is convinced are needed to give the Tories a fighting chance at the forthcoming election.

Had Hunt consulted his own constituents, however, he might have come to a very different conclusion about what he needs to prioritise on Wednesday.

A recent poll in his new Godalming and Ash seat, a brick in the “blue wall” now under attack from the Liberal Democrats, suggests Hunt is on course to be the first serving chancellor in modern times to lose his seat in the Commons.

The Lib Dems are currently on 35% of the vote, the Conservatives back on 29% and Labour on 22%, according to a recent Survation poll commissioned by the campaign group 38 Degrees. With tactical voting, the chancellor could be an even more distant second place.

But the findings also suggest that, far from being enticed back to the Tory fold by tax cuts, his own constituents prioritise the woes of the NHS above all else.

Asked to identify the issues determining their election vote, “health and the NHS” came top, followed by the cost of living and the economy generally. Only 4% said tax was a key election issue.

Among his local voters, an alarming 59% said close friends or family had experienced difficulty in booking a GP appointment and almost half had struggled to book an appointment themselves.

To hammer home the point, two-thirds (67%) of those asked said increasing funding for public services such as the NHS would be more important in determining their vote – 25% said tax cuts would be more important.

Related: ‘Blue wall’ voters in Godalming and Ash cast doubt on chancellor’s chances of holding seat

“Under Jeremy Hunt’s chancellorship, lives have got worse in Godalming and Ash – it’s as simple as that,” said Matthew McGregor, the chief executive of the 38 Degrees group. “This election is a chance for change and all parties need to listen up: the public want our NHS to be saved and they want help with the cost of living – they don’t want cheap tax tricks to buy votes and ruin our essential public services.”

The findings show that, before one of the most crucial political weeks of his long career, Hunt finds himself stuck between three competing and contradictory realities.

The first is the political reality that tax cuts of some kind have been so priced in that No 10 is clear that they have to be delivered in some form.

But beyond Westminster, the reality of the pressure on public services is troubling voters, including Hunt’s Godalming electorate.

Then there is the unwelcome economic reality that Hunt is dealing with.

However the chancellor chooses to find the cash for tax cuts this week – with Downing Street pushing for a cut to the basic rate of income tax and the Treasury preferring a cheaper national insurance reduction – there are now increasingly despairing warnings that they will be based on future public spending commitments that are a complete fantasy.

Hunt, thought to have about £13bn headroom within his own fiscal rules, has been looking at finding more cash by dialling down already very tight future spending plans – cutting any increases from about 1% a year to 0.75%.

Economists believe it is almost impossible to achieve such small rises given the pressure facing public services, but the desperation with which tax cuts are being pursued means that Hunt may have to deploy such a suspension of disbelief.

David Gauke, a former Tory chief secretary to the Treasury, said that the low spending plans in place already amounted to “a hospital pass” to the next chancellor.

“Nobody really believes that is going to be deliverable,” he said. “There are two grounds on which Conservatives try to distinguish themselves from Labour on the economy. One is that Conservatives would be more fiscally cautious, and second, that they would deliver lower taxes. Particularly at the moment, those two attributes are in tension with each other.

“This is probably his last big job and this is probably his last budget. If I was Jeremy Hunt, my priority would be ensuring that his reputation and the Conservatives’ reputation for good economic management is enhanced, not diminished, rather than trying to gamble that a big tax cut would be transformational, which I don’t think it would be.”

There is one other pre-election trick to play. Included in Hunt’s pre-budget options have been plans to steal some of the few revenue-­raising ideas Labour has committed to – an overhaul of the non-dom tax status and increasing the windfall tax on energy companies. That would spike Labour’s guns.

But with the right already critical of Hunt and Sunak, there is a very real political danger that such a move will do nothing to help the prime minister regain control and authority over an increasingly ungovernable Tory party.

Survation polled 507 voters in the new Godalming and Ash constituency from 16-20 February