Laura Kuenssberg: When will politicians make their minds up on key plans?on February 3, 2024 at 4:49 pm

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No wonder voters are unconvinced when politicians may seem unclear on economic plans, writes Laura Kuenssberg.

Laura Kuenssberg graphic

To govern is to choose. But in the last couple of weeks, you would be forgiven for wondering if our politicians can make decisions at all.

In January, the Conservatives were dangling the possibility of more tax cuts in the Budget in a few weeks.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised “more to come” after cutting National Insurance in November. Leaving more in your pay packet was his “clear priority”.

Just weeks ago, in the snowy surrounds of the millionaires’ mini break in Davos, the chancellor implied lower taxes were coming with the odd nudge and wink.

But now the chequebook seems to have gone back in the pocket of the prime minister’s expensively-cut suit.

Talk of that ultimate jargon “headroom” – hypothetical spare cash the Treasury can use – has dried up.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is instead telling anyone who will listen that he probably cannot give you anything back after all.

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Labour is inching closer to scrapping its pledge to invest £28bn a year in green projects – after months of dismissing the suggestion as nonsense.

Whispers of the number vanishing from Labour’s plans after the Budget seem set to come true.

Interviewers strive to come up with ever more ingenious ways to force shadow ministers to admit the figure is doomed.

In both cases there are logical reasons for and against each plan.

For the Tories, of course instinctively they all want to cut taxes. Backbenchers have a vigorous appetite for cuts.

But the tax burden in the UK is at its highest level since records began 70 years ago.

A cabinet minister told me the prime minster and chancellor want to give “robust clarity” and leave the public in no doubt they will cut tax as soon as they can.

The counter argument to cutting tax?

Money is extremely tight. There is not much cash down the back of the sofa.

Shaving public spending and squeezing efficiency from taxpayers’ money are both hard to do.

And the economic picture changes so fast.

No 11 Downing Street might have even less to play with than it looked like at the start of the year.

It is hard to get a consensus out of economists on what to do next. Some advocate tax cuts to pick up a flat economy, while others argue now is not the time.

Labour’s limit?

For Labour there are obvious pros and cons too. The £28bn was meant to achieve several things: create lots of jobs, lower energy bills, a greener UK, and economic growth, which in turn pays for the public services Labour wants to fund.

To some Labour MPs, it is exactly the kind of idea they need to sell to voters. Distinct from the Tories and it offers new jobs and environmental benefits.

One party source told me: “The idea that the party will give up on its growth plan in March is not plausible”.

The downside?

The £28bn is a lot of money – especially when it is unclear how ugly the government’s finances may look by the end of the year.

Labour committed to the plan before Liz Truss’ mini-budget and the subsequent spike in interest rates.

The Conservatives are also working overtime to implant the idea that Labour would hike taxes to pay for this totemic figure.

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There are no automatic answers for either party.

Even in today’s tough political climate, politicians can still change their minds. Screaming headlines about U-turns can be here one day and gone the next.

The secrets to pulling off a perfectly executed U-turn? Pace, candour and clarity.

Theresa May’s social care reversal was not a disaster because she junked her policy – it was her refusal to admit it. Her “nothing has changed” claims did the damage.

The Tories’ problem is ministers have been sending mixed messages on a fundamental issue when clarity is paramount. While Labour is suffering from weeks of wobbling over its promises.

Wobbly words

Political parties of course do often indulge in what is known in the trade as “expectation management”.

If you are planning to ditch something, then it can be sensible to drop a few hints in the press to avoid a nasty shock.

Similarly, when expecting a pleasant surprise, you could play it down, generating excited headlines when the news is better after all.

But perhaps both parties are running the risk of coming across as unclear about what they really want. Suggesting a sense of confusion and betraying a lack of confidence.

Confusing messages from the PM and chancellor “does not seem to me politically to be a very clever thing to be doing,” George Osborne’s ex-spin doctor James Chapman, told me.

“A good budget is all about the element of surprise, and the expectation on the Tory backbenches about tax cuts is out of control,” he added.

Tony Blair’s former political secretary, John McTernan is convinced Labour should stick to its guns. Maybe even be bigger and bolder.

“We should say our world is changing quickly, and we want to fight on the future, and fairness,” he told me.

Wavering on this promise shows a lack of belief.

After the Liz Truss debacle, Labour could just “point and laugh” when the Tories claim the numbers do not add up, Mr McTernan said.

In our meeting with nearly 50 voters last week we heard again and again they thought Rishi Sunak was not in full control. And they were not sure what Keir Starmer really stands for.

Few doubt that both men are well-meaning and deadly serious about the job.

But with the two main parties wobbling on a core issue you cannot blame voters for remaining unconvinced – until we know if they will, or if they won’t.

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