Isabel Hardman

Boris Johnson’s corporation tax u-turn could backfire

Boris Johnson's corporation tax u-turn could backfire
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The Conservatives are naturally very determined not to repeat the mistakes of the last election campaign, particularly when it came to the way the party’s manifesto was ‘dumped’ on an unsuspecting public in the middle of the campaign. Campaign aides say the 2017 mistake was not to roll the pitch in the run-up to the big, controversial announcements on social care that Theresa May’s manifesto contained. That’s why Boris Johnson today surprised the CBI by announcing he would postpone his planned corporation tax cut and instead put £6 billion into public services. 

Now on one level this announcement isn’t anything like the sort of controversial policy that seriously undermined May two years ago. It allows the Tories to counter Labour’s claim that they’re more interested in making life easy for the rich than improving it for the many. But it is also not a very Conservative thing to do, and contradicts years of assertions by the party and particularly by Johnson himself that every reduction in the rate of this tax leads to a boost in revenue. Hence getting it out now, so that any row can burn to an ember by the time of the real manifesto launch. 

With both main party manifestos due in the next week or so (Labour’s is on Thursday while the Tories are still being coy about theirs), we will see a great deal more pitch-rolling from both sides so that voters are ready for what’s coming. But it’s also a reasonable bet that Johnson isn’t going to try to level with the public on the big issues of the day, like social care, in the way Theresa May did. She saw her snap election as a sure way of getting a huge majority and therefore a chance to be honest with voters. Johnson might be far ahead in the polls right now, but there’s much more of a sense from those around him that one false move could change everything. 

The question is, though, whether this is actually decent pitch rolling when the Prime Minister was only yesterday extolling the virtues of tax cuts. He told the Daily Telegraph:

‘Our instincts are to try to cut tax where we can, but only because we think that there are some taxes that you could obviously cut and see an increase in yields.’

He has repeatedly said in the days and weeks running up to today’s CBI address that corporation tax is one such tax. In the Tory leadership contest, he argued:

‘Every time corporation tax has been cut in this country it has produced more revenue.’

And yet now he is changing tack and suggesting that dropping the cut will save money which can be spent on public services.

This looks less like pitch-rolling and more like ploughing the field. It risks making the Prime Minister look insincere in his beliefs about tax policy, and as though he doesn’t really know what he’s doing from day to day.

The Tories have clearly learned the lesson of not lumping all the policy announcements into one manifesto day, but that was the mistake of a previous election. We could be seeing a new species of mistake for the 2019 campaign emerging: the Prime Minister contradicting himself abruptly in the hope of a short-term gain.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

Topics in this articlePolitics