Sunday, September 29, 2019
Corbyn's not popular, but many of his ideas are
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

My regular column is available to subscribers on This is an excerpt.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are, on the face of it, about as far apart as it is possible for two political leaders to be. There is no love lost, and very little common ground. Or perhaps not. People say to me that we have prime minister and worst opposition leader, simultaneously, in living memory.

Whether that is true or not, the similarities could be greater than the differences. Neither, for example, has a credible or workable plan for leaving the European Union.

The Johnson plan, or non-plan, began with a demand that the EU remove the Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement or there would be no talks, then decided it was better to talk even without that commitment from the EU, and now appears to be based on offering reheated proposals from the Theresa May era which have already been rejected by Brussels.

Leaving with no-deal, which has been rejected by Parliament, becomes the alternative, even though the prime minister is required by law to seek an extension of Britainís EU membership if he fails to conclude a deal by October 19. Nothing is guaranteed, including his governmentís respect for the rule of law, and it may be that the government is trying to provoke the EU into not agreeing an extension.

But it is a strange way to proceed. Before Johnson became prime minister, many offered the assurance that once he took office he would, as when London mayor, surround himself with sensible people. If so, they must be locked in the Downing Street bunker.

Ministers, meanwhile, are subject to no-deal delusion. I hear quite a lot from business people who have meetings with ministers that it has become a dialogue of the deaf. When Michael Gove told the House of Commons that the retail and auto sectors were ready for a no-deal Brexit, he had clearly been attending a different meeting from the one they were at.

Those sectors have publicly put him right and a new survey from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that of the two-fifths of firms who think a no-deal Brexit will hurt them, only a fifth have properly planned for it. Two-thirds say that, given the range of uncertainties, they do not think it is possible to plan.

Labourís Brexit position is no more credible. A Labour government, it seems, would quickly break the negotiating impasse and conclude a deal. Then it would offer this deal, against the alternative of staying in the EU, in a referendum.

But, apart from the fact that swiftly-concluded deal and Brexit are a contradiction in terms, it is hard to see how such a proposal would come anywhere near providing Leave supporters with a democratic outlet. After getting through a withdrawal agreement, Labour would want to stay in the customs union and single market, which for some reason have become anathema to many Brexiteers, much more so than they were three years ago.

Labour backs freedom of movement and, indeed, appears to want to extend it beyond the EU. Its referendum offer would be seen by voters as near-EU membership versus actual EU membership. For many Leavers, if it ever came to that, that would be no choice at all.

Beyond Brexit, the similarities between Johnson and Corbyn go further. Gone are the days when the choice was between a fiscally responsible Tory party and fiscally incontinent Labour. Tories used to be able to lambast Labourís unfunded proposals.

No more, if we do have an election this autumn, it will be a contest between very large unfunded proposals. As I noted last week, the case for the greater use of fiscal policy is now made. But this is different from splashing the cash as if there is no tomorrow, and we can be sure that both parties will be doing it.

It remains to be seen how much this weekís Tory conference, which has been rained on by the Supreme Courtís rejection of Johnsonís prorogation of Parliament, has in the way of big and expensive new proposals. But we have already seen more than £13bn of extra public spending for next year announced by Sajid Javid, the chancellor, and the government has big ideas about raising the higher rate income tax threshold from £50,000 to £80,000, taking the low paid out of National Insurance (NI) and removing stamp duty from property purchases under £500,000, as well as spending a lot more on infrastructure.

The tax threshold plan would cost £8bn a year, according to new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, while increasing the NI lower limit to £12,500 to remove the lower-paid from it would carry a £17bn annual bill. That is a lot of money and, as I say, there may be more to come.

Labour, which has had its conference, announced another tranche of spending proposals. They included free personal care for all over-65s and the abolition of NHS prescription charges. It can only be a matter of time before Labour goes back to the free dental care and glasses that were a feature of the 1948 National Health Service.

Whether they do or not, one element of Labourís proposals is that private sector businesses will pick up the bill, for example for the shadow chancellorís idea of a 32-hour working week. When some years ago, France adopted a 35-hour maximum working week, we all scoffed. Now Labour wants to go one better. I have no axe to grind on behalf of independent schools but I would be concerned about proposals to fold them into the state sector.

It may be that none of these ever see the light of day. Corbyn is a populist, but he is an unpopular one, though two City firms, Citigroup and Deutsche Bank, have suggested that a Corbyn government which remained in the EU would be better for the economy than a Tory administration which left without a deal.

Disturbingly for business, for me, and for many people who read this column, Labourís proposals are popular, even if the party under Corbyn is not. Policy for policy, a £10 an hour minimum wage, replacing universal credit, renationalising the railways and the utilities, free care for the over-65s, getting rid of prescription charges, abolishing university tuition fees (very popular in the 2017 general election) and increasing income tax for the highest paid, do better in polls than Tory ideas for increasing the higher rate threshold, cutting stamp duty or taking the low paid out of NI.

When both parties are splashing the cash, it matters who has the better vote-winning ideas. The Tories have work to do on many things, and this is one of them.