For decades there were three things you could count on with the Conservative Party: lower taxes, fights over Europe and a backbench rebellion. These were the old guarantees of the Conservative Party – but is Rishi Sunak breaking the mould?
The Prime Minister has raised Corporation Tax and (due to not raising thresholds with inflation) dragged millions of people into paying more Income Tax, as well as passing a Brexit-related agreement that the DUP and ERG wholeheartedly reject, all without more than a whimper from the backbenches. Never normally one to be shy about sticking it to their boss, it seems something is keeping the Party aligned… for now.
Despite tax rises, the focus from the Budget has largely been on one giveaway: abolishing the limit on how much you can put in your pension tax-free. The Chancellor says it is aimed at stopping people retiring early in order to boost the labour market – with GPs one of the main targets. Politically, it targets the well-off who want to be able to put more into their pension pots – a group traditionally more likely to vote Conservative, in a sure-fire attempt at consolidating that vote, who are presently flirting with Labour.
Starmer hit back instantly calling it a tax break for the wealthy. He would know after all, his Crown Prosecution Service pension is already exempt from the cap. Social media boffins in Conservative central office must have been delighted he fell for their trap, no doubt having already drafted the attack ads. The two leaders personal tax affairs then came to light with both publishing their tax returns within a day. Sunak’s showed he paid over million pounds in taxes over three years (did you know he was rich?) and Starmer around £120,000.
Aligned on taxes, and seemingly aligned on Brexit – maybe Sunak and Starmer have a lot more in common than they would have you believe. On Wednesday the Government got their Windsor Framework through Parliament, with over 500 MPs voting in favour – Theresa May could only dream of those numbers for a Brexit vote. With Brexit seemingly settled, what does this mean for rebellious Conservative brexiteers? The DUP and ERG both voted against the bill, but with only 20 Conservative rebels, the clamouring for a fight from the backbenches seems to be waning. Even former rebel commander Steve Baker stuck to the Government line (as junior Northern Ireland Minister), only to find himself unceremoniously kicked out of the ERG WhatsApp group. But with both Truss and Johnson voting against the Bill why was the rebellion so small? And where was the rebellion on raising taxes?
A lot of it could be down to fatigue. With three Prime Ministers within a year and years of Brexit votes, some may feel the need to move on and rally together. Particularly so because they are so far behind in the polls that any more infighting would just further damage the brand. No doubt the Framework is more acceptable to Conservatives than previous iterations, but there didn’t seem to be the need for a huge whipping operation. MPs wanted the issue resolved and want to give Sunak a chance. The Prime Minister had a good week, but with polls massively different depending on who you ask, this goodwill will only last so long.
There aren’t many guarantees in politics, but you used to be able to count on Brexit, taxes and rebellions (and Boris), now it seems we can’t even rely on that. Sunak promised us a more boring form of politics, he seems to be sticking to his word.