It isn’t clear what changed Theresa May’s mind on calling an early general election, something which, as recently as 20 March, she was adamant would not happen. But could the trigger have been nothing to do with Brexit at all? An interesting date is 16 March, when Phillip Hammond reversed the proposed increase in National Insurance on the self-employed which he had announced in his Budget only the week before. The fuss seemed to catch Hammond – and presumably Theresa May, too – by surprise. It seemed as if it simply hadn’t occurred to them that they ought to feel bound by David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto, which promised no rise in the rates of income tax or national insurance throughout the life of the Parliament. The government has already broken one other promise – to freeze the television licence fee – but not too many people noticed that, helped by the modesty of the rise, from £145.50 to £147. But further breaches of promises would be bound to run into difficulties.
Now, May has the chance to free herself from David Cameron’s manifesto for good. Presumably, her own manifestations will include a promise for new grammar schools – silencing Nicky Morgan and relieving the Lords of an excuse to block the measure. It can be pretty much taken for granted, too, that the new manifesto will exclude a promise to freeze tax rates, so that Hammond can be uninhibited when he delivers his promised big budget in the autumn (assuming he is still Chancellor).
But what else of Cameron’s programme will go? The triple lock on pensions must be one candidate – which guarantees pensioners a rise in the state pension of at least the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is greatest. With CPI at 2.3 per cent and rising, now would be an ideal to peg rises back to inflation, as the change will have little or no impact in state pensions over the coming year.
There is the question of Cameron’s aid target of 0.7 per cent of GDP – very unpopular among many conservatives and open to ridicule given stories such as this morning’s revelation that we are even paying aid to North Korea in a pretty feeble attempt to ‘spread British values’ – if the money doesn’t get spent building wooden mock-ups of missiles.
And what about a British Bill of Rights? May was an enthusiast for this policy which Cameron promised but never delivered. Then last April, during the referendum campaign, she said she was no longer in favour because there wasn’t great support. Will she now change her mind?
Will there be another devolution bill for Scotland, transferring more financial powers? With the Conservatives now in second place at Holyrood there is a huge temptation to secure a recovery north of the border. Even two or three extra seats (assuming Labour fail to gain any back) would be a huge moral victory.
Brexit is likely to dominate this general election campaign, and the Conservatives – at least on current polling – look extremely unlikely not to make solid gains. All the more reason to keep a keen eye on the small print of the manifesto.