Great Britain

Is the coronavirus crisis a good excuse for breaking manifesto pledges?

It took Kenneth Clarke, who as a cabinet minister had the honesty to admit that he hadn’t read the Maastricht treaty, to cut through the pieties of manifesto promises: “Some of the expensive promises they’ve made would not have been made had they known they’d be handling this crisis now.”

Manifestos are treated as if they are sacred texts, binding for all time and in all conditions. There are even constitutional conventions about them: the House of Lords cannot block a policy if it was in the manifesto of a party that won a majority in the House of Commons. 

Yet the pragmatic truth is that such pledges are symbols. They are markers of the kind of government a party intends to be. They have a practical effect, in that they raise the embarrassment threshold for going back on a policy – the most obvious example being Nick Clegg’s reversal on student fees – but they are not guarantees. 

Clarke was making the point, to Robert Peston on ITV this week, that taxes would have to rise, regardless of what the manifesto says. “It’s absurd to say no increase in any circumstances in income tax, VAT, and whatever the other one was. I mean at the time some lady in the office wrote that into the manifesto, she and all her political colleagues hadn’t got the faintest idea they were going to be facing the worst financial crisis for the last eight years.”

The “other one”, incidentally, was National Insurance contributions, and it is true that those three taxes account for most of the government’s revenue. It is also true that when “some lady in the office” – that was Rachel Wolf, who had been a policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he first ran for mayor of London – co-wrote the manifesto, she did not know that a pandemic was on its way. 

Clarke has form in telling it like it is. Not only has he admitted that most politicians don’t read most of the long texts that do, unlike manifestos, legally bind them – that is not a sensible use of their time: they have to have trusted advisers to do it for them and to point out the contentious bits. But he has also said that he would have broken the 1997 Tory manifesto by increasing public spending if John Major had won and he had remained as chancellor. 

In part, he was teasing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for their caution in promising, in their manifesto, to abide by Tory spending plans for their first two years in government. In fact, while he could probably have broken his own promise, because public opinion would have supported higher spending by a Tory government, it would have been more damaging for Labour to have done so, because Blair and Brown needed to reassure the voters that they could be trusted with the nation’s finances. 

The point is that public opinion is critical. The reason Johnson and Rishi Sunak can cut the aid budget is that it always comes bottom of people’s priorities. I know one opinion polling company that considered leaving aid out of a question about what public spending should be cut because the choice was so overwhelming it made it harder to gather useful opinions about other possible reductions. 

The aid budget cut also illustrates the weakness in another attempt by politicians to issue binding guarantees. Under the Labour government the fashion grew for not just setting targets and putting them in manifestos, but for writing them into law. Thus climate change targets and the target for spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid are now embedded in legislation. 

However, it seems that the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 was drafted by someone who, unlike Clarke’s “lady in the office”, did imagine the possibility of an economic crisis. Johnson, Sunak and Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, have been advised that they are able to cut aid spending to 0.5 per cent next year under the law, “in the context of economic pressures”. Which is convenient, because there are many Conservative MPs who would vote against the cut if a new law had to be put to parliament, and it would be unlikely to pass the House of Lords. The Lords would be entitled to say that they were standing by the promise of 0.7 per cent aid spending in the 2019 Tory manifesto. 

That leaves open the question of what happens to the aid budget in later years, but once the cut to 0.5 per cent is done and the manifesto promise broken, it will be easier to legislate. 

Equally, it will not in the end be the Tory manifesto that decides whether spending will be cut and taxes raised. The aid cut is only the harbinger of other public spending cuts closer to home, and, as Clarke says, now is not the time to be raising taxes – although Sunak did introduce one stealth tax in his spending review this week, by “allowing” local government to raise council tax. 

“They are going to have to raise taxes,” Clarke said. He seemed to think public opinion would accept that some spending will have to be cut, and some taxes will have to go up – in due course – in which case the 2019 manifesto promises will be worthless. 

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