It was stunningly popular when announced back in 2007, being instrumental in talking Gordon Brown out of a snap election. It was the most significant opposition policy announcement in many years. But times have changed a lot: the middle classes are less inclined to identify with the rich (bloody bankers); the Tories are coming under fire for being the party of wealth and privilege (especially on this one issue); and the public finances are not exactly conducive to tax cuts.
And yet, rather than dropping it, George Osborne is still insisting he intends to do it, although not straight away:
It’s now clear that if you want to get on in life, save for your retirement and leave something for your children then the Labour Party is not for you. But it won’t be in the first couple of years.
Why stick to this line despite the transformed public mood?
A possible answer could be inferred from an anecdote that Andrew Grice reports:
A Tory mole tells me that Mr Cameron has received about 4,000 letters of protest over dropping his "cast-iron guarantee" that a Tory government would hold a referendum on the EU's Treaty of Lisbon. … The issue for many correspondents was not Europe but trust, a promise broken. I suspect we won't hear Mr Cameron use the phrase "cast-iron guarantee" again.
Tory policies have been notoriously few and vague. Cameron and Osborne may fear that ditching this one – by far the best-known of their specific proposals – would be more damaging than any hits they may take from keeping it. U-turns can be executed gracefully, but a high-profile one such as this might have compounded many people’s suspicions that Cameron and gang don’t really stand for anything, and are just bog-standard politicians who’ll say whatever’s convenient for them at the time. This is all the more important given that the expenses scandal has subjected the political class to even more distrust than before.
That’s what occurred to me when I read Grice. But then I remembered something else.
Ken Clarke was publicly slapped down for suggesting the inheritance tax cut might be downgraded from a “commitment” to an “aspiration” – all the way back in March. This was before the Tory attack of the vapours over the Lisbon referendum made them fear looking wobbly; it was before the expenses scandal made political integrity into the issue of the year.
I can only conclude that Cameron and Osborne want to cut inheritance tax because it’s something they truly, madly, deeply believe in. You may agree or disagree, but there it is: this is the social injustice that they’re in politics to fight.