How is Theresa May’s big £20bn funding pledge landing with the public? That’s the question Tory MPs are beginning to ask. The Prime Minister’s – currently unfunded – early birthday present for the NHS to celebrate its 70th birthday was announced to much fanfare last month. It was meant as an agenda setting policy that would help to define her premiership, show there was more to Mayism than Brexit and boost the Tories’ standing with voters.
As of yet though, signs of an immediate Tory boost are absent. A YouGov poll – taken 25-26 June about a week after it was announced – puts the Tories ahead with a five-point lead on 42pc and Labour on 37pc. However, it’s not that the Tories have gained since the last poll – just that Labour have fallen behind. Conservative MPs report a similarly muted response to the news from constituents. ‘The public sort of shrugged,’ says one MP.Some have heard from constituents – only they were complaints that the Conservatives are spending too much money on the pledge. Another remarks that they haven’t had ‘much feedback’ on it – but expect that to change later on.
That change could yet be a negative one given that the next part will be the swing in tail: how to pay for it. May is yet to announce this but she has said it will involve tax rises. There is so little clarity on how that, as I previously reported, around 20 MPs were recently summoned to the Treasury to make a Dragon’s Den style pitch on revenue-raising measurements.
The Guardian today reports one such potential revenue raiser: fuel duty – and lifting its eight-year long freeze on it. An inflation-linked increase would raise £800m extra for Treasury coffers next year – and billions more in subsequent years. Already there have been murmurs of discontent at the news. The very reason fuel duty has been frozen for so long is that hiking it is deeply unpopular. At a time when the oil price is rising, hiking fuel duty is a dangerous move as the government could be blamed for the increase at large. There’s also the question of how much it will even raise when more and more people are switching to electric cars.
This is just a taste of the trouble ahead in the Budget when Hammond lays the government’s cards on the table. What will be discouraging to No 10 is that even though this funding pledge is meant in part to neutralise a potential problem ahead of the next election, they have so far got not much in the way of thanks – and the most difficult part is yet to come. The danger is that voters pocket the funding and then take issue with the tax measures that pay for it thanks to them being presented as a separate thing.