For those of us who hoped, however desperately or naively that Gordon Brown really would bring a change, however small to the Labour party, last week was the evidence that showed if anything, Brown is prepared to push the political centre ground even further towards the right. However much we may loathe his motives for doing so, it was an astute political move, if nothing else. The success of last week, or at least the success as the press and the Labour party itself saw it, was to put the Conservatives into a hole: where do they go when Brown is so shamelessly stealing not just their territory, but even some of their policies?
If yesterday and today are any indication, it's the response that comes naturally: go even further right. Of all the people who you could choose to talk on foreign affairs, only the rabidly right-wing would decide on a figure as divisive or discredited as John Bolton, one of the architects not just of the Iraq war, but also of the whole neo-conservative movement. You wouldn't have known that from listening to him though, as he's now apparently embarrassed about his previous dalliances with the Project for the New American Century, to which he was a signatory to at least a couple of letters, even if he didn't sign its statement of principles. No, rather than a neo-con, he's a Goldwater conservative, and he doesn't share the "Wilsonian" views of the benefits of democracy that some of his fellow neo-cons do.
That's probably for the best, as he had either just or was about to call for the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran, wistful of the time when the "the US once had the capability to engineer the clandestine overthrow of governments". Nothing really new there, as after all, Donald Rumsfeld himself had previously mused on the overthrow of the Shah, who he considered to be a fine man, except for the torture, repression and all the rest, whom the CIA had maneuvered into place after Mossadegh was deposed. According to Bolton, Iran's nuclear program has gone beyond the point of no return, and "limited strikes", while not an "attractive" option, are better than the alternative. The UN, he said, to applause, is "fundamentally irrelevant", unlike for instance, a former UN ambassador with a mustache similar to a former Russian dictator's.
Away from the calls for even more bloodshed and dropping of bombs in the Middle East, this week, again according to the media, was make or break for the Conservatives, the Scum for one suggesting that David Cameron's task was close to "mission impossible". Labour's bounce, especially when the Conservatives had yet to have their own shindig was always going to be possibly overstated, and no betting man would have put down his money before at least seeing how they performed.
While we'll have to wait until Wednesday for Cameron's own attempt to galvanize both his own troops and potentially the public behind him, if Brown does call an election, he'll find it difficult to top today's naked attempt to blind the public with tax cuts that the vast majority will never actually pay. If the message of Brown's speech was at times puritanical, nationalistic or even jingoistic, then George Osborne's theme was aspiration, that most bourgeois of desires, that the vast majority of us grow out of once we realise that it's only available to the better off. Osborne's promise today to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million was, however indirectly, an indication that the Conservatives have no real intention of trying to change that.
Before he came to it though, it was time for a whistle stop tour of all Gordon Brown's failures. He holds, according to a former civil servant, a "very cynical view of mankind", which according to Osborne is the "antithesis of our age". Forgive me for defending Gordon Brown, but I think he might just have something there: the current state of the world hardly suggests otherwise. Give me cynicism over "sunshine winning the day". Next he was responsible for Northern Rock, somewhat more plausibly, but wasn't this ever so slightly rich coming from the party responsible for the disaster on Black Wednesday, and only weeks after John Redwood, shortly to be praised by Osborne, suggested that all the red tape regulating mortgages be abolished, just as the disaster of the sub-prime lending in America took out a bank that had thought that the age of easily available liquidity would last forever?
That part of Redwood's report was strangely not mentioned, although his other recommendations, Thatcherite to the core and in direction contradiction to those in the quality of life review from Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer, were praised to high heaven. Osborne doesn't just believe in low taxes, he wants them every day of the year, not just December the 25th, in a vacuous soundbite to end all vacuous soundbites. Before the inevitable announcements though, it was back still to whacking Gordon Brown over the head; he doesn't just not get it, he also doesn't understand the new economy, whereas Osborne believes in the collective wisdom of free people, which is apparently how Google, Facebook and MySpace work. It seems that Tila Tequila is a Conservative too, as the people have chosen her as their representative from MySpace.
Finally, drearily, Osborne got to the meat, and you really wish he hadn't, so thin and so laughable was his argument. Rather than it being the huge rise in house prices, or the lack of housing stock, vastly depleted by err, the Tories' selling off of the council houses being chiefly responsible for young families finding it hard to get on the property ladder, it's in actual fact all down to Brown's stealth taxes, and the whopping £1,600 that those buying for the first time have to pay in stamp duty. Well, fear no more, because the Tories are going to abolish stamp duty for all first time buyers' on houses sold under £250,000. Their dream of making a tax cut look better than it actually is your dream too, or something. Aspiration, aspiration, aspiration!
That though was nothing compared to the next fiction to be served up. John Redwood's report had proposed abolishing inheritance tax, and it was widely briefed that there was going to be an announcement this week that it was going to become firm policy, and Osborne certainly wasn't going to disappoint. He was cannier than Redwood though: abolishing IHT completely could easily be portrayed as giving the ultra-rich a free tax cut, giving Labour more than enough to target. Instead, Osborne's ploy was to readdress IHT and make it only target the super-rich, as it was initially meant to. The applause as he announced that the threshold would be raised to £1 million was deafening: you almost expected him to take a couple of bows, so delighted were the Tory faithful at such wonderful news. You could almost see the pound signs reflecting in their eyes, the vast majority safe in the knowledge that they could pass down all the privilege they'd either earned or inherited themselves with no worries that the evil taxman would be taking it from them.
Too bad that the sums on how it was to be paid for simply don't add up: just how many non-domiciled Britons are going to sign up for the status when it costs £25,000 a year? Answer: not many. And wasn't there an inherent contradiction in the policy? Hadn't Osborne just moments ago said how the very rich, those it is still going to hit, already avoid inheritance tax? Where do the aspirational fit into all this? Aren't those who inherit their parents' former abode with no payments to make less likely to achieve for themselves when they have a cash cow courtesy of the luck of being born, or even due to the luck of whom their parents were born to? In reality, inheritance tax has become a bogeyman for middle England which is all too easy to take out and win major kudos for doing. Never mind that even the Tories agree that it currently only affects 6% of estates, and that Labour is already going to raise the threshold to £350,000, it's still enough to scare the journos on the Mail and Express with their well-off parents, the most likely factor behind the clamour for its abolition and resulting inching into the consciousness of the nation at large. There has always been a case for raising the threshold even further, to £500,000, or £750,000, respectively double or treble the average price of a house in south-east England, so it really does still hit the rich, but £1 million is the equivalent of abolishing it while not doing so. Paul Linford thinks Gordon might go one better and abolish it completely, but we shall see.
At the same time then as declaring themselves the party of aspiration, the Tories intend to still further rob from the ultra-rich to give to the reasonably well-off, entrenching their position while further damaging the already limited ladder of social mobility. In fact, they're not even satisfied with that: in order to destroy the iniquity of single mothers being better off alone through the tax system than if they're living with a partner, they intend to get the long-term sick on incapacity benefit on their bikes through the private sector to pay for it, and that's without even considering the blatant bribe of £2,000 a year to married couples, those weak links that are hard done by as a result of our hideous welfare state helping the unwell and out of work which thinks nothing of those that tie our society together, as Iain Duncan Smith so effortlessly identified.
It'd almost make you want to vote Labour, until you remember that new Labour in the age of change under Brown is the soft Conservative option. I used to think that those who complained about politicians being all the same weren't paying enough attention: turns out they were right.
Labels: aspiration, Conservative party conference, George Osborne, Gordon Brown, inheritance tax, speeches, tax, Tories