16 March 2023

The big question Jeremy Hunt didn’t answer – what are the Conservatives for?


Judged by the low bar set by recent fiscal events, yesterday was a triumph for Jeremy Hunt. Despite some habitual backbench grumbling about the fine print this morning, the Budget managed to break from recent tradition by not unravelling on its first contact with the airwaves. 

Those worried about the Corporation Tax rise were bought off with the long-coveted promise of ‘full expensing’ (for three years, at least). The Energy Price Guarantee freeze prevented some negative headlines next month. The annual cancellation of the fuel duty rise rewarded backbench campaigning, and put off the inevitable introduction of road pricing just that little longer. 

Abolishing the Lifetime Allowance for pension contributions raised a cheer from the nation’s golf-courses, as recently retired doctors considered returning to work. Reforms to childcare and disability benefits showed overdue concern for the plight of worklessness, and completed the reforms Iain Duncan Smith began over a decade ago.  

Defence spending rose, homage was paid to ‘Levelling-Up’, and beer duty was frozen. Unspectacularly, Hunt did just enough to keep most of his fractious party onside and the markets quiet, whilst paying homage to both the 2019 manifesto and Rishi Sunak’s ‘five priorities’ (not to be confused with Jeremy’s own Four Pillars). 

But, but, but…while this Budget can be deemed a short-term success, it still betrayed all the fundamental problems associated with a Conservative Party that has been in power for 13 years and is suffering from just a touch of ideological confusion. This Budget may have successfully spun the various plates Hunt has been handed, but it lacked a vision for how the country should look. 

There were gestures. The Chancellor mentioned ‘optimism’ a few times, and that he wants to make Britain a ‘science superpower’. He suggested Brexit was a vote for an economy with lower immigration and higher wages – even if the OBR’s growth forecasts factor in much higher numbers than many voters are happy with.

But neither of those claims are distinguishable from something the Labour Party might put forward. Will Keir Starmer soon be found trashing Galileo? Or arguing that what those coveted Red Wall voters really want is a return to free movement? For all his natural ‘Remoaner’ inclinations, even Starmer has the political nous to realise that’s a non-starter.

In fact, the Tory and Labour offerings are now sufficiently similar – a tax rise here, a new hospital there, some green-washing in-between – that Hunt even stole the branding of Labour’s ‘Great British Energy’ proposal for his new nuclear power station initiative. A minor flourish that pierces the veil of our current technocratic Butskellism, whilst perpetuating the fantasy that such stations will ever be built. 

Pardon my cynicism. But as one of the few people under 25 willing to publicly brand themselves a Tory (and who hasn’t yet landed a Talk TV presenting gig), I am somewhat invested in the hopes for both my generation and party. On the evidence of this Budget, that is not something that lies at the forefront of the Chancellor’s mind. 

That is not to say he doesn’t think about the future. That Hunt has punted the costs for many of his big announcements into the next Parliament shows he is keen on winning the next election, and making life more difficult for Labour if the Tories lose it. The very fact that this was a ‘Budget for Growth’, yet went easy on the tax cuts, shows that Hunt hopes taking the medicine now will ensure he can splurge ahead of polling day. 

Yet making a rather narrow definition of ‘growth’ the be-all and end-all of policymaking displays the same myopia that caused Liz Truss to come a cropper. I agree with Paul Krugman: productivity ‘in the long run’ is ‘almost everything’. I bang no drum for the ‘de-growth’ fanatics. Living in the Shire would be lovely, but it isn’t worth shivering in the dark as your children die of leukaemia.

The question we should be asking ourselves is ‘what is this growth meant to be for’? Is it an end in itself? Does it exist solely to make it slightly less embarrassing for the latest Chancellor to stand up at the despatch box and announce our sclerotic state and sluggish growth mean we have missed his latest bout of fiscal rules, and that more tax rises are required?

Or is it that we want a richer country so we can afford the sort of society that Conservatives would like to see? Take the two areas where Hunt went further than expected: abolishing the Lifetime Allowance and providing parents with children under the age of three in working households with 30 hours of state-funded (sorry, ‘free’) childcare. Both are designed to make it easier to work: for older workers to stay in employment longer, and for younger to pack their kiddies off to nurseries and return to the office.

Getting these people into work would undoubtedly be great for our GDP. But whilst work may be good for the soul, do Conservatives see it as more important than family life? These measures do not help those mothers – or fathers – who might want to stay at home and raise their children while their other half works. Nor do they help those households where both parents work, or when one parent earns more than £99,999, since they now find themselves even more out of pocket. 

Both of these visions reflect different aspirations for the Conservative lifestyle – one where a single income can support the raising of a child by someone other than the state, and one where climbing the job ladder enables higher earnings and the lifestyle that affords. Both are now hampered by Hunt’s need to make his sums add up. 

For someone my age, with ridiculous housing costs, a growing tax burden, tuition fee repayments, and stagnating wages ahead of us, there is very little to get excited about here. It is not their fault, hemmed in as they are by back-benchers who have never met a housing proposal they don’t dislike and a voter base greyer than a long weekend in Carlisle.  

It would be remarkable if little successes like this Budget got the Tories across the line next year. Yet such a victory would ring hollow if it came without considering what a Conservative government is supposed to be for – except swerving defeat every four or so years. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.