If the Tories have ‘economic credibility’, what on earth does it mean?

Zoe Williams
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

If Rishi Sunak announced a plan to increase taxes on anyone earning more than £80,000, how would Labour respond? It is not an unreasonable question for the BBC’s Andrew Marr to have posed to shadow cabinet member Rachel Reeves on Sunday. We’re in bizarre times where taxing the rich is so in vogue that even the rich are calling for it.

Yet the immediate question is not for the Labour party, but for all of us: the Conservatives are always seen as the party of economic credibility. Even when, as now, they score lower on every other quality necessary for government – honesty, competence, decisiveness – they are still, dispiritingly, the party we trust with the chequebook. Yet, if you were asked to say who had dreamed up which policy, between chancellor Sunak and John McDonnell, very often the only way you’d know would be that the Tory plan, unlike the Labour one, was not properly costed.

The so-called Rishi’s Dishes – a scheme for people to eat out during the month of August, costing £500m – is only the most peculiar giveaway in a host of stimulus measures, some of which could have been lifted wholly out of Labour’s 2019 manifesto. The homeowner’s grant to retrofit houses and thereby lower emissions is a great use of money; less so the massive VAT cut, from 20% to 5%, designed to stimulate leisure activity that people are still quite scared to undertake (where was the nudge unit when this was devised? Even a rudimentary understanding of human behaviour should tell you that, when a person thinks the risk from a theme park visit is too high, a sales tax cut won’t make a difference).

The meal deal is, likewise, targeted to save the industry rather than the customer – which is understandable, but it doesn’t have much to offer people who are struggling to feed themselves at home. Set against the rise in hospital admissions for malnourished children, it looks feckless and irrational. By contrast, a report in the Financial Times, that the government is considering debt-for-equity swaps to reduce the corporate debt burden, sounds so sensible that the idea could have come from Labour’s Ed Miliband – as indeed it did, when the crisis first hit.

Meanwhile, the Conservative policy forum, which thinks of itself as the brains of the operation – although history doesn’t relate whether or not Dominic Cummings agrees – sent out a snap poll to party members asking them which tax hikes they preferred, between wealth and income, rents, pensions and inheritances.

Plainly, the situation is extreme, and it would be unreasonable to expect anybody to remain inflexibly true to whatever economic principles they were espousing pre-Covid-19. And yet, the Conservatives show no internal coherence even within the crisis, from one idea to the next. One minute money is no object and they will do “whatever it takes”; the next, workers have to be “weaned off” furlough schemes to return to reality. There’s no description of how that supported worker’s circumstances have changed, just an airy deployment of this fundamentally insulting metaphor, that we’ve had enough mother’s milk and must now learn to subsist on air.

Sunak and his colleagues have created a patchwork of ideas – in which half are plagiarised from their opponents, and the other half seem to have come to them in a dream. And even if there was consistency within the plan, there is no reasonable presumption of foresight. Rumours of tax rises today could easily become rebooted austerity tomorrow; grants to tackle climate change could be jettisoned as green crap.

Fundamentally, there is no discernible set of principles underpinning it all. For the past 10 years, they’ve been the party to shrink the state in the hope that some amorphous mix of private business and civic spirit will step in; for a short while, they were the party of mindless optimism and “fuck business”; for the past six months, they’ve been the party of magic money trees (not, granted, for the first time).

Conservatives can always find huge reserves when they need to: David Cameron for his flooded home counties, Theresa May for her deal with the DUP. But when you can’t fit their actions into any recognisable worldview, it becomes genuinely difficult to distinguish between a costed idea and a fag-packet guesstimate; a real promise and a panicky gesture. It is surely time to ask, if this is the party of economic credibility, what does that even mean? How long can one’s own credibility survive this clown show?

In normal times, and even straitened ones, the Conservatives are trusted with the purse strings because they’re quite straightforward about their essential natures: they’re not motivated by social generosity and won’t let it interrupt the pursuit of their agenda. Their promise could be fiscal contraction (2010 to 2017) or grand infrastructure spending (2019), but it won’t be redistribution for the sake of it – and that’s good enough to seal their reputation for prudence, apparently in perpetuity.

However, this attempt to take the traits of an individual – where parsimony would naturally coexist with thrift and foresight – and map them on to a political project, is a category error. The Tory party as a whole isn’t at all hard-headed; it is wildly impractical, intermittently corrupt, buffeted by events its competence is entirely unequal to. It simply bears no resemblance to the sober, bowler-hatted personality it has historically chosen to project.

Right now, it is certainly the Labour opposition’s job to build a vision of something better; but it’s for every responsible citizen to catch up with reality as it is.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist