Voices: Rishi Sunak’s latest Big Idea? Tax breaks for the home-owning over-50s

A well-worn tactic, in politics, is to quietly leak details of new policies you are considering, just to see how they go down. If the general reaction is one of astonishment and widespread disgust, the idea is to then not go through with it.

One of the very many ways in which everything continues to go wrong for the current government is that owing to its recent propensity to change prime minister every few months, they have lost track of which policy was only really announced for lols and which ones they’re actually meant to be doing.

Deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, for example, was announced just hours after Boris Johnson became the first prime minister ever to have received a criminal sanction while in office. On that occasion, the astonishment and widespread disgust was kind of the idea, but three prime ministers and four home secretaries (two of whom are the same person) later, they appear to actually be going ahead with that one, even though it’s almost certainly impossible.

We can only assume that the most recent Big Idea, as leaked in the last 24 hours, carries on in that now rich tradition of government by rolling horror show. Rishi Sunak is doing his best to come up with ways to make the over-50s return to the workforce.

There are record numbers of voluntarily out-of-work 50-plus-year-olds, which is defined as someone over 50 who is not working, not claiming out-of-work benefit and not actively seeking to return to the job market either. This has significant negative effects on the economy.

So how do you solve it? One of the grand schemes Downing Street wants you to know it is considering (even if it actually isn’t) is – wait for it – scrapping income tax for the over-50s. Yes, you’ve read that right. If you happen to be reading this in any kind of office environment now, do consider glancing up from your screen, scanning the horizon, and making a little mental tally of precisely who it is you can see who could really do with a massive tax break and who couldn’t, and see if the people in your life who really could do with yet more subsidies are the over-50s.

It’s not even just the staggering injustice that’s the main problem, though that is a massive one. For a very long time now, polls have indicated that the number of people aged 45 and under in the UK who are considering voting Conservative is so small that there is no guarantee that even Rishi Sunak himself is one of them. One of the many reasons both Kwasi Kwarteng and his mini-Budget had to swiftly be erased was its suicidal politics, as well as economics. Scrapping the top rate of income tax might genuinely have boosted economic growth, but to do so in the middle of a massive cost of living crisis would also have booted the Conservatives out of government very quickly indeed.

The causes for over-50s leaving the workforce in large numbers are many, and they’re not to do with income tax. A large number of them are simply waiting around for major operations that are preventing them working, and they will be waiting around for a lot longer yet. One way to get them back would be to actually sort out the NHS, but that isn’t going to happen.

Another – and this is more widespread than you think – is that they’re very financially secure thank you very much. Millennials and Gen Zers traditionally get angry with boomers for the crime of their massively inflated housing wealth. This is unfair. Your average 50-something homeowner not only got in on that particular act, but also stands a very good chance of having inherited their sadly dead parents’ massively overinflated housing wealth too – and that’s in cold hard cash, not bricks and mortar.

Purely on an anecdotal level, I could name quite a few over-50s who’ve sold their house in Hackney that they bought for ninety grand for 10 times its value and taken themselves out of the workforce and off to the countryside.

What’s needed is not necessarily a tax subsidy to lure them back, but the building of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – more houses, to bring this complete intergenerational con to an end. How likely that is to happen, at the hands of a guy who spent most of his two summer leadership contests coming up with new, ingenious planning laws that made it harder, not easier, to build more houses, well, we shall see.

Privately, Tories talk of being out of power for a generation in two years’ time. That sort of talk is overblown. Voters get fed up with governments, and they retreat to oppositions, and it never takes a generation. It does, however, seem quite preposterous that they should choose to spend these two years cementing their reputation for caring only about middle-aged and elderly homeowners. They may be the only people in the country who vote Tory, but they are not going to be around forever.