Theresa May has perfected the art of saying nothing in interviews. The most any journalist can hope for is a subtle shift in position, or an absence where a position once stood. She seems to think that, if you refuse to give the press anything, the public won’t care. Worse, she seems to be right – for now, at least. So it would have been with a heavy heart that Andrew Marr set off to see if he could try to draw blood out of the Prime Ministerial granite. Same for Robert Peston afterwards. A Theresa May interview means the recital or verbal formulae: ‘strong and stable’ here, ‘working families’ there, ‘for the many not the few’ there. Then a journalist afterwards tries to explain what message, if any, might have been buried in those words. So here’s my attempt.
Marr: One of the reasons that the Conservatives have had to oversee so many cuts in so many areas is that under the last government you made an absolutely clear and to many people ridiculous promise to never raise income tax, VAT or national insurance, the so-called triple tax lock. Are you going to repeat that?
May: We have absolutely no plans to increase the level of tax, but I’m also very clear that I don’t want to make specific proposals on taxes unless I’m absolutely sure that I can deliver on those.
Interpretation: Tax rises ahoy! David Cameron’s 2015 Manifesto pledged not to increase income tax or National Insurance. I instead propose 'no specific proposals' - ie, clearing the way for tax rises. For example, my plan to raise National Insurance, the cornerstone of my last Budget. I had to abandon this after too many Tories pointed out we'd promised not to raise taxes last time. How I hated that climbdown, and the very idea of being bound by a Cameron promise. That's what this election is really about: a bonfire of these Cameron promises. From 9 June onwards: Theresa time!
May: But it would be my intention as a Conservative government and as a conservative Prime Minister to reduce the taxes on working families. And if you’ve got a strong and stable leadership that’s absolutely what you can do.
Interpretation: Give me strength to cut taxes, O Lord, but not yet! We Tories always say we like to cut taxes but Osborne raised taxes. And so will I: we know this because I published plans involve the UK tax burden rising to a 35-year high. So yes, one 'can' cut taxes with a stable government. One can invade Ireland with a stable government. But don't expect either to happen anytime soon.
AM: So you would accept that that tax lock was going to far. Your chancellor thinks it tied his hands a little too tightly.
TM: Look, when people come to look at this decision at the next election on June 8, they will have a choice between a Conservative party that has always been a low-tax party that actually over the last few years has taken 4 million people out of paying income tax altogether, and a Labour party that is about raising taxes.
Interpretation: Look, the Lib Dems forced us to raise the starting rate of income tax in coalition and we went along with it – so I’ll cheekily claim credit for the 4m people lifted out of income tax. But the real choice in this election is between a Labour party that will raise taxes happily or a Tory party that will raise taxes with a heavy heart. And to those who are unhappy about this, I say: who else are you going to vote for? Tax rises come in red, blue or yellow and that's the only choice at this election.
AM: Do you think the richest people in this country, people who perhaps own homes worth £5million, are paying their fair share of taxes? Should they be asked to pay more, given that we’ve got a tough time ahead of us?
TM: If you look at what has happened in terms of tax, the top one percent of people paying tax are actually paying a higher burden, a higher share of tax under us, under a Conservative government, than they did under any Labour government.
Interpretation: The Sunday Times today picks up James Forsyth’s scoop that the Tories are mulling capital gains taxes on a main home. Only for homes worth over £5m (to start with, but once this tax is created then the limit can come crashing down). So forgive me if I don’t answer your question about wealth, and answer an entirely different question about income tax.
AM: Alright. Is the triple lock on pensions still safe?
TM: Under a conservative government the state pension will still go up every year of the next parliament. Exactly how we calculate that increase will be for the manifesto, and as I’ve just said, you’ll have to wait for the manifesto to see what’s in it. But what we see already is that because of the actions taken under conservatives in government on the basic state pension – pensioners are one thousand two hundred and fifty pounds better off – and under a conservative government the state pension will continue to rise each year.
Interpretation: The state pension always goes up! Even if it’s only 75p a year. The Tory 2015 manifesto pledge was that it would rise in line with average salaries, inflation or 2.5pc, whichever is the higher. This treble lock was intended as a stunt, then inflation crashed so it kicked in and cost £18bn more than we hoped. So no, I won’t mention the treble lock now. In saying that 'will be for the manifesto' I can confirm that it’s all up for discussion. The Sunday papers say the triple lock will stay until 2020 then a double-lock thereafter, but I won’t go into that.
Anyway, Robert Peston got only one more line out of her: that VAT, already at an eye-watering 20pc, won’t be going up higher:
TM: We have no plans to raise the level of tax.
RP: What does the level mean? I'm not sure what that means.
TM: In relation to specific taxes, we won't be increasing VAT, but what I do want to ensure is that we are able to have the strong...
RP: You definitely won't raise VAT? That's a 100pc commitment.
TM: ...But what I want to do is to ensure that when we do look more widely at the tax system, that what we say on the tax system, we're absolutely clear that we can deliver on it for people.
Interpretation: When I say 'no plans to increase tax' that's not quite true: my last Budget shows I plan to increase the tax haul by about £125bn over the next five years. So taxes would go to 37.2pc of GDP. I just haven't said how. But let's save that until after the poor suckers have elected me, eh! And let's try that "no plans" line for now, even though it ain't true. As for VAT, it is already at an eye-watering 20pc, so it probably won't go any higher. But if I give a pledge on that and not on other taxes: well, I think that speaks for itself, don't you? I do need ideas on how to raise tax, though. Maybe there are some lying about on a discarded Ed stone...