Yesterday, the Tories announced that the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment will stay if they win in June. They also refused to rule out ending the pensions triple-lock and suggested “flexibility” in future tax policy. In a normal campaign, taking just one of these positions would throw the election into chaos – but this is 2017 and the Tories are so far ahead in the polls, deservedly, that they probably feel they can take risks. Perhaps they can. Perhaps Brexit is so compelling a reason to vote Tory that it eclipses everything else. But the Conservatives should heed the lessons of history: neglect your base at your peril.
Voters would appreciate straight-talking and lower taxes. There is no reason why the Tories cannot offer both.
Consider the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid. This was adopted by David Cameron in 2010 and belongs to an era when Mr Cameron was trying to appeal to the Left by visibly abandoning the Right. It proved to be a mistake. Setting a percentage target has meant that the money spent on aid has risen regardless of the UK’s ability to pay or the rest of the world’s need. Odd decisions have been taken: £4 million was sent to North Korea. And the National Audit office says that investigations into fraud involving foreign aid have quadrupled in five years. The policy is a bad one and, coincidentally, it has turned out to be an unpopular one, too. It may have won the hearts of a handful of Lib Dem voters but it has also become a byword for the liberal metropolitanism that Brexit was a revolt against.
Mr Cameron was a clever politician: in 2015 he realised he was in trouble with the Right, so he switched direction. Pledging an EU referendum was the most dramatic re-invention, but just as important were keeping the triple-lock on pensions – to keep faith with pensioners – and a pledge not to raise direct taxation. The fact that a ceiling on taxes was written into law was a concession that Mr Cameron had lost a lot of trust with the Conservative base.
Trust is very important in politics, which is why Philip Hammond caused such controversy when he raised National Insurance on the self-employed in the March Budget. Not only was it a tax rise, which is bad in itself, but it broke Mr Cameron’s manifesto pledge. Yesterday in Washington, Mr Hammond hinted that the Tories might drop that pledge from their next manifesto. If his thinking is that voters will appreciate greater honesty from their politicians then he is right. But they would also appreciate lower taxes. There is no reason why the Tories cannot offer both.
There is a sophisticated academic discussion to be had about what defines Toryism, from Edmund Burke to Margaret Thatcher. But since the Second World War, its winning pitch has been simple: lower taxes and a smaller state. The two are linked. Reduce the state – by, say, cutting foreign aid – and the state can afford to cut taxes. Equally, put limits on how much tax revenue the state can enjoy and it should learn how to do more with less. The voters like these principles and usually vote for them. Whenever the Tories depart from them, they are punished. In the early Nineties, for instance, the Conservatives raised taxes. Not only did their support plummet but they handed Labour a chance to triangulate and redefine itself as the taxpayers’ champion. Throughout the 1997 election, Sir John Major was haunted by cries of “22 Tory tax rises”.
In those days Britain had an opposition with some intelligence. A clever leader of Labour today, a ruthless opportunist, would no doubt be accusing the Tories of sending cash overseas, raiding the pensioners and threatening to put up taxes. Jeremy Corbyn, however, is not capable of mounting such attacks. So the Tories might calculate that they can get away with a little triangulation of their own.
Mrs May is popular because of her authoritative leadership, her defence of the “just about managings” and her clear stance on Brexit. But also, let us never forget, because she has sought to mend the bridges between the Tory leadership and its base that Mr Cameron broke down. Stating that Brexit means Brexit and bringing back grammars have been critical to re-establishing trust. It would be a pity to undermine that faith by pursuing fiscal policies that suggest a turn towards a Tory kind of socialism. Undiluted Toryism is a far stronger brand.