Alex Massie

Weak, Weak, Weak

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So the government is appeasing pie-eaters today. And caravan owners. In one sense this is unsurprising since increasing taxes on items perceived to be enjoyed chiefly by the working-class is rarely a popular move and, in terms of presentation, especially awkward for a government most of whose ministers are from wealthy backgrounds. Nevertheless, this u-turn is probably a mistake. 

It is another reminder that this government can be bullied. We saw that when perfectly sensible plans to sell state-owned trees were abandoned and we see it again now. Like pies and caravans, the proposed forestry sell-off was a relatively trivial matter rebuffed by, in that instance, a largely urban, largely middle-class alliance of pseudo-green campaigners. The government had a reasonable idea and chose not to defend it. 

On this occasion, ministers made a complete hash of defending proposals to tax hot takeaway pies in the same way fish suppers are taxed. Put like that, the government's tweak to the VAT code was hardly a matter for Outrage. As James says, one consequence of this climbdown will be to make future changes to VAT even more difficult. (In one sense this is no bad thing but, like all semi-useful aspects of tax policy, it comes at a cost).  

If this were a matter of the government conceding on trivial matters so it could concentrate on the truly important task of restoring public finances and doing what it can to sponsor business adventuring and economic growth these u-turns would not matter so much. But the government is not making progress on the major fronts either and so, inevitably, defeats in minor theatres, some of whose importance is mainly symbolic anyway, become especially dispiriting. 

As Paul Goodman points out there will be many Conservative MPs who will wonder why they bothered to dutifully defend the government's original proposals. They have taken their lumps doing so and will, as is the way of these things, receive no credit at all for changing course.

Doubtless the government will suggest it is all about "listening" but really it's about throwing in the towel. If it makes the government "look" weak then perhaps that's because this is a weak government? Few of the possible explanations for all this are especially cheering: either the government has a distinct shortage of political nous or it lacks the courage of its own convictions. Of course, these views are not mutually exclusive. 

Nevertheless, it seems very odd to have passed these measures, even at some cost, and then abandon them anyway. Why bother? And what was it all for?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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