Taxation a dilemma for Cameron

TO cut or not to cut taxes - that's the dilemma facing the Conservatives as they start to compile their General Election manifesto.The Tories are now 13% and 16% ahead in the two opinion polls, as Labour slumps to a post Budget virtual melt down, but if David Cameron goes into the election - which must be held before June 2010 - offering nothing substantially different from Gordon Brown, voters may find little reason to flock to the Tory banner.

Graham Dines

TO cut or not to cut taxes - that's the dilemma facing the Conservatives as they start to compile their General Election manifesto.

The Tories are now 13% and 16% ahead in the two opinion polls, as Labour slumps to a post Budget virtual melt down, but if David Cameron goes into the election - which must be held before June 2010 - offering nothing substantially different from Gordon Brown, voters may find little reason to flock to the Tory banner.

Tax-cutting agendas and clawing back the power of the state, once the hallmark of the Conservative Party in general and Margaret Thatcher in particular, are no longer in vogue.

The Conservatives are afraid to talk of lower taxes for fear of having their spending plans picked apart by Labour and taunts of how can they possibly fund an improvement in public services if they reduce taxation.

The National Health Service is the test. Whatever the moans and gripes about doctors' appointments, hospital waiting lists, and the regionalisation of key specialities such as cardiology and oncology, the public stills wants the assurance of the illusion that the NHS is free to all.

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Of course, the health service is not free. That's why we pay National Insurance contributions, not to mention prescription charges, and the exorbitant cost of NHS dental treatment.

The Conservatives have to match Labour's promises on health spending. To do anything other would be electoral suicide.

Which brings us to Cameron's blunt warning to Tory activists that families may not be financially better off under a Conservative government.

He used the party's spring forum on Tyneside - for long a Tory-free zone and the home of failed bank Northern Rock - to hammer home the message that a decade of Labour overspending meant there was “nothing left in the locker”.

Labour's greatest achievement since 1997 has been to become regarded by voters as trustworthy with the economy. Previous Labour governments were never given the mantle of fiscal competence which has clothed Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for nearly 11 years.

All that has now changed. The latest opinion survey shows the public has more faith in Cameron and shadow Chancellor George Osborne to run the economy than Prime Minister Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling.

But even though two thirds of voters say they want lower taxes, Cameron is not going to be falling into the elephant trap, even though the Tory right insists that tax-cutting is the only way to guarantee a Conservative victory.

He said he couldn't and wouldn't promise that a Conservative government would cut the cost of living and make everything easier for Britain's families.

All he could pledge was to make sure the tax burden was not made worse.

Could the Conservatives go to the election promising “jam tomorrow?” The answer again seems to be no.

Shadow Treasury chief secretary Philip Hammond said pledges to slash bills would be “the great bonus of the second election” once savings had been made to fund them.

In other words, and assuming the Tories win next time and are re-elected, it will be 2015 at least before taxes start to fall.

That's a message many party activists are finding difficult to stomach. Tim Montgomerie who runs the website Conservative Home says: “We (the UK) are sliding down the economic competitiveness league table. The state is squandering the resources it has gobbled up in recent years.

“The real disposable income of millions of Britons is flat or falling.

“And there is not one single political party pledged to change course in a serious way.”

HAPPY FAMILIES

DAVID Cameron appears to have learned nothing from the disaster which befell Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten, who invited the cameras into his home to film his family eating an evening meal during his bid for the party's leadership.

A few days later, and Oaten was forced to slink out of the contest in shame after two rent boys with whom he had cavorted laid bare his claim to be a family values sort of chap.

Not that I'm suggesting that Cameron isn't anything but a happily married and deeply loving family man, and he is especially devoted to his profoundly handicapped son Ivan.

But Cameron has now laid himself open to the more rogue elements in the media and to opposing politicians who may be tempted to take pot shots at Cameron and his family. He can no longer, with any seriousness, demand a private life for his family when he has very publicly exposed them - indeed exploited them -- on national television.

The family's television appearance came just days before Cameron launched a package of family friendly policies including plans to support his plans to guarantee new parents more flexible leave after the birth of their baby.

“A business that says, well what about the costs of these regulations on maternity or paternity, I would say to them: 'Look, the reason your taxes are so high is because of the consequences of family breakdown and social failure.'”

HOWITT IS TOP OF THE PILE

LABOUR is to make strenuous efforts to increase its number of Euro MPs in the East of England when voters go to the polls next year.

Sitting MEP Richard Howitt has received the endorsement of all constituency parties in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and will once again head Labour's slate in the list system of proportional representation used in elections to the European Parliament.

Mr Howitt is all but guaranteed to be elected but if Labour's national opinion poll standings drop below the current 29%, the party will have an uphill struggle to get any other candidates re-elected.

Ever the optimist, Mr Howitt believes Labour will make gains as support for the UK Independence Party fizzles out. “I accept that Labour has a fight on its hands but I believe we will do better than anyone expects.”

Labour has zipped its regional list, putting men and women in alternate positions. Second place goes to Beth Kelly, a former councillor in Hertfordshire who lives in Hatfield. She lost out in 2004 when UKIP made major gains but if Labour's percentage share of the vote increases, she could scrape home.

In third position is Nigel Gardiner, a Brussels businessman who contested Suffolk Coastal in the 2001 General Election. Ranked fourth is Stevenage councillor Sherma Batson and in fifth place is businessman James Valentine from Bedfordshire.

Kathy Curtis from Castle Point in Essex is sixth and seventh slot goes to Chris Ostrowski, who has just graduated from the University of East Anglia and was a party activist in Norwich.

At the 2004 European elections, three Conservatives - Geoffrey Van Orden, Robert Sturdy and Chris Beazley - were elected along with two UKIP candidates Jeffrey Titford and Tom Wise, Andrew Duff from the Liberal Democrats and Mr Howitt for Labour.

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