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Manifesto promises alone should not hold back Rishi Sunak's Budget

The views of the public and the chancellor’s colleagues are more likely to bind his hands on pensions and tax than the letter of the manifesto

The views of the public and the chancellor’s colleagues are more likely to bind his hands on pensions and tax than the letter of the manifesto, argues Sarah Nickson

In his quest to put the public finances back on a sustainable footing, chancellor Rishi Sunak has been urged by former Conservative occupants of 11 Downing Street to revisit and rewrite totemic 2019 manifesto commitments.

Citing the unforeseen nature of the pandemic, Ken Clarke, chancellor under John Major, argued that “you can’t be bound by that document” when it comes to pledges on the pension triple lock and rates of income tax, VAT and national insurance contributions. [1] The Institute has argued elsewhere that there are good policy reasons to reconsider settings on both tax and pensions. [2]

With the prime minister reportedly blocking any such moves, changes in the short term seem unlikely. But, policy merits aside, there is surely a point when context and circumstance permit governments to reverse course on the ‘contract with the electorate’.

Governments fail to deliver plenty of manifesto commitments

No government implements every manifesto commitment. Our previous analysis showed that of around 40 key commitments from 2017, the government was only on track to implement around one third, even allowing for its truncated term. The 2010 and 2015 governments failed on between 20% and 30% of key commitments.

Little more than a year into its term, this government has already abandoned some of its pledges: spending on overseas development, reducing debt and delivering superfast broadband to all premises in the UK. The first resulted in passing uproar, the second accepted as inevitable, while the third barely raised a whimper in the national media.

Not all manifesto commitments are created equal

The varying reactions show that not all manifesto commitments – and the consequences for dropping them – are equal. First, the public pays little attention to manifestos. YouGov polling from late 2019 found that 43% recalled commitments on Brexit and 22% on the NHS, but these were the only ones from the Conservative manifesto to make it into double figures. Only 5% of those surveyed named the promise not to increase taxes. The triple lock did not make it on to YouGov’s shortlist. [3]

But the constituency for an election promise matters too. The prime minister is reported to feel that he owes it to his “core voters” – like pensioners – to deliver on “core promises”, despite the pandemic. [4] And plenty of well-funded lobby groups, not to mention backbench MPs and potentially the opposition, would probably line up to oppose any tax increase. Former chancellor Phillip Hammond found himself on the wrong side of a manifesto promise – and more importantly, influential colleagues – when he tried to increase the rate of national insurance for the self-employed.

Broader public opinion about a policy often matters more than whether it is written into a manifesto. Despite widespread media coverage of the aid cuts at the time of announcement, this focus fizzled out in a matter of days. While the issue could flare up again when the government calls a vote on the cut, for now it has weathered the cries of ‘broken promise’ because most voters (66%) supported the reduction, and only 18% were opposed. Among Conservative voters, the numbers were even starker, with 92% support.

Of course, far from being entirely at the mercy of public opinion, the government can shape it too. It would need to do this on tax, where public views are mixed and have shifted over time. Polling on specific tax options from the middle of last year suggests that the public is yet to be persuaded they should accept higher taxes post-pandemic, or of the suspension of the triple lock. [5] But support for paying higher taxes in return for higher spending on public services has risen markedly since 2010 and has been above 50% since 2017. [6] The Institute has argued the government can build public support by being clear about its objectives for the tax system and making better use of evidence.

Finally, even though few manifesto promises register with the public, a government which breaks a promise not to do something can be easy ammunition for political opponents at the next election – far more so than failing to meet a commitment to do something.

Changed circumstances can sometimes let governments off the hook

When Norman Lamont, another of Major’s chancellors, pushed recently for changes to the triple lock and taxes, he suggested that “the public might understand that commitments made when times were normal… don’t really have a lot of relevance today”. Others have taken a different view: Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, warned changes could cost the government the next election, while an unnamed Cabinet minister suggested that the pandemic didn’t licence the government to row back on “core promises”. [7]

Governments are sometimes spared punishment for dropping pledges that no longer suit the times, as Rishi Sunak has already found with his fiscal rules on debt. Similarly, the Conservatives did not pay a political price for their failure – and sometimes outright reversal – on immigration commitments from the 2017 manifesto because, by the time of the 2019 election, an end to free movement was in sight and the issue had lost much of its potency. But in the battle between the Lamont and Rees-Mogg schools of thought, these precedents offer an ambitious chancellor little comfort: thr pledges lacked the visible ‘losers’ who would oppose any tax or pension changes.

The sanctity of the manifesto is often used as a rhetorical device by anyone opposed to a government decision, but it has less force than the popularity of a policy, the influence of its proponents or opponents, or the government’s success in making the case for change. Sunak has already shown he can break promises and emerge unscathed. These factors – not the letter of the manifesto – would be the main barriers to raising taxes or tweaking the triple lock.

Johnson government
HM Treasury
Public figures
Rishi Sunak
Institute for Government

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