Peter Hoskin

Tories struggling to find a line on tax

Tories struggling to find a line on tax
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After the platitudes in David Cameron's speech yesterday, comes the bluntness of Ken Clarke in today's Sunday Telegraph.  Interviewed by the paper, the shadow business secretary says that it would be a "folly" to rule out tax rises:

"It is something that every Conservative tries to avoid but I didn't avoid it when I was getting us out of recession before. Coming out of a recession when you have such a severe deficit you can't rule out putting up taxes."

He's right, of course.  The mammoth size of the deficit, and the lag before many spending reductions take effect, will mean that the Tories shouldn't rule out tax rises.  More than that, in fact: they'll certainly have to introduce them.  As we already know, plans are afoot to increase VAT to at least 20 percent.

All of which makes Cameron's attack on a Labour government which would introduce "higher taxes" rather perplexing.  Why the hypocrisy?  And why the two different messages in two consecutive days?

Truth is, CCHQ are struggling to mix several messages that they want to make all at the same time: that Labour would introduce regressive tax measures (such as the national insurance increase), that the next government will be forced to raise taxes, and that the Tories would cut some taxes to stimulate growth.  These messages don't reduce into one snappy soundbite, so just what to say?

Some Tories you speak to hope that the problem will iron itself out during and around the election campaign, when the parties - including themselves - put more of their tax plans on the table.  But my advice would be simple: if a soundbite doesn't meet our fiscal situation, then just spell out the entire story.  A party should be able able to outline the whys and wherefores of its position on tax.  And one which hopes to govern from 2010 should certainly do just that, if it wants a mandate sufficient to the problems which lie in wait.

Who knows? The public may even go for some of that good ol' fashioned honesty.