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Fri, 25 September 2020

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Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak Are Trying To Soothe The 2019 Intake – But Can They Keep The Shires And The Red Wall On Side?

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak Are Trying To Soothe The 2019 Intake – But Can They Keep The Shires And The Red Wall On Side?
5 min read

In a meeting with new Tory MPs the Prime Minister and the Chancellor admitted there were “choppy waters” ahead and the tough times are “likely to get tougher”.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have set about soothing the outspoken 2019 intake with a pledge not to create a “horror show of tax rises”, after a summer of U-turns dented confidence.

Their words were welcomed by the backbenchers, but some voiced trepidation over the challenge the government faces in keeping its diverse new electorate happy. 

Speaking after PMQs, Mr Sunak - whose warm words were helpfully snapped by a photographer as he left Downing Street for Parliament - urged colleagues to put their trust in the Government to get them through the crisis.

He said: “Now this doesn’t mean a horror show of tax rises with no end in sight.

“But it does mean treating the British public with respect, being honest with them about the challenges we face, and showing them how we plan to correct our public finances and give our country the dynamic low-tax economy we all want to see.”

Mr Johnson is said to have won over plenty of those in Commons committee room 14 with his comments about an “orgy of national embarrassment” after the BBC’s change of heart on the Proms.

However it was his own set of policy reversals that first needed smoothing over, including the latest fiasco over local lockdowns in Greater Manchester that were due to end but suddenly re-introduced.

Bolton MP Chris Green, a 2019 Tory, told the BBC he was “disappointed” with the way it was handled, and that people “need clear messaging so they can feel confident - communications haven't been as effective as we would like”.

A lot of the voters we won over in 2019, yes they like the cultural issues like Brexit, immigration, law and order, but... some of them don't have the same level of economic security as perhaps some of our traditional supporters have in the past."

One MP in the meeting said there was “a slight acknowledgement that not everything's gone swimmingly” from the PM, but overall he was in “positive spirits”.

Another said they relayed their frustrations to him over the A Level and GCSE results row, and about not knowing what line to take to their voters, but the mood was mainly about working together to get all pupils back in school this week.

The Prime Minister sought to ease concerns about their constituents getting clobbered in an upcoming Budget used to start repairing the damage the pandemic has done to the economy.

And his Chancellor reassured them over a raft of stories in recent days about potential plans to increase corporation tax or touch the triple lock.

Discontent had reached the cabinet, with Therese Coffey breaking ranks on Times Radio to say she was ideologically opposed to tax rises.

One Red Wall MP said he was told in the meeting the reports over the Bank Holiday weekend “were not accurate” and it was “flying kites”, and Mr Sunak “asked them to trust us, trust our judgement.”

The Chancellor said the Tories “must not surrender our position as the party of economic competence and sound finance”, and promised: "At the next election there will be clear blue water between us and Labour on taxation.”

But putting distance between the two parties might not be so simple, given a spokesman for Keir Starmer was unequivocal that his party does not think now is the right time to raise the tax burden either.

In a briefing to reporters, when asked about the mooted fuel duty hike he said: “With the health crisis still not under control and the deepest economic crisis we've faced in generations this is absolutely the wrong time to be talking about tax rises - the Government should be focused on getting the economy growing again.”

It is a view shared by plenty of Tories, who feel increasing corporation tax will hammer small businesses struggling to build back after the pandemic.

Several 2019 intake MPs were clear the decade-long fuel duty freeze remains sacrosanct - especially in areas without great public transport and where families rely on their cars to get around.

However while the commitment to a low-tax economy might be something the new Tories agree with their colleagues in more traditional party strongholds, one MP said the Red Wall needed a different set of policies to the shire heartlands.

He said: “I think there's also a political point here at the moment that a lot of the voters we won over in 2019, yes they like the cultural issues like Brexit, immigration, law and order, but some of the old guard in the party do also need to realise that some of them don't have the same level of economic security as perhaps some of our traditional supporters have in the past.

"So yes I am a low-tax Conservative, but when we make these fiscal decisions we do need to have a recognition that the electoral coalition that hopefully returns a Conservative government at the next general election, it's probably not going to be the same electoral coalition as it was in 2015.”

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