In April 2015, a month before the General Election, the Conservative party published its manifesto. Contained within it was the unambiguous promise: “we will not raise VAT, National Insurance Contributions or income tax” (it’s on page 3). Whether or not you take issue with the idea that sometimes tax changes need to be made in order to increase fairness or (heaven forbid) pay for better public services, it’s hard to deny the clarity of the message.
Earlier this month, less than two years after the manifesto was published, Philip Hammond stood up in the House of Commons and announced that he would be raising National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed. He had apparently come up with this policy without realising that it broke a 2015 manifesto promise. He had presented it to the Cabinet in advance of announcing it, and not one member of the Tory cabinet noticed that they were about to go back on an election pledge. As the Chancellor had to sheepishly admit, it took the BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg to spot what the entire Conservative party had missed: they had broken their word.
Just under a week after the announcement was made, under intense pressure from Tory backbenchers, Hammond backtracked and reversed the policy. This was a screeching U-turn that had the double embarrassment of leaving the government in the position of saying that they still think the policy is the right thing to do, but they’re not going to do it.
This isn’t just political point-scoring by drawing attention to the fact that the Tory party made a terrible mistake. This matters. The fact that the Conservatives are happy to play so fast and loose with their promises to the public; the fact that they are so incompetent that they don’t even notice when they have broken a key pledge; the fact that they can believe something is the right thing to do but be browbeaten out of doing it by bad press and the grumbling of their backbenchers - all of this matters.
It matters in particular because what comes next - the Brexit negotiation - is much bigger, more complicated and with higher stakes than anything that has come before. Theresa May has already thrown out another commitment from that 2015 manifesto - “we say: yes to the Single Market” (page 72) - when she unilaterally announced in January that we would in fact be saying a decisive “no” to the single market. Again, this was a U-turn made at the behest of her most extreme backbenchers. Can we trust anything that the Tories say? They have recently published a White Paper on leaving the EU. It was disappointing enough anyway, but is it even worth the paper it’s written on?
We are about to enter one of the most prolonged periods of uncertainty that the country has faced outside of wartime. The implications of how we leave the EU - the impact on people’s lives, their communities, their jobs and their futures - are enormous. Get this wrong, and it could take decades for the country to recover.
Given those circumstances, this month’s Budget embarrassment should be a lesson to the Tories, and a warning to the rest of us to hold them to account. If they are to negotiate on behalf of country in order to define our future place in the world, I want to know that they can keep their promises; that they are on top of the detail; and that they will do what is right for the country, and not just whatever will appease Tory Eurosceptics. Right now, it’s hard to have confidence that any of that is the case.