No-one ever said the job of Chancellor was easy.
Philip Hammond has been finding that out the hard way since Wednesday. Criticised by many among his own Conservative ranks, and now the subject of a campaign by The Sun to quash the increase in National Insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed, the Chancellor has been a man almost under siege for the past 48 hours. The latest is of course that the Prime Minister has, albeit temporarily, but the brakes on the plans, which MPs won’t have to vote on until later in the year.
Part of the problem, at least from a Conservative backbencher’s perspective, is that the increase in NICs breaks a manifesto pledge from 2015. And this essentially sums up the debate in a nutshell. Firstly, was the Chancellor right to announce the NICs increase? And secondly, how should we react to what would seem to be a broken Conservative promise?
The Institute for Fiscal Studies is pretty clear. The Chancellor was absolutely right to announce the increase. Its director, Paul Johnson, has described the manifesto commitment (made by Mr Hammond’s predecessor) as “silly” and one that simply ties the Treasury’s hands – also suggesting there continue to be substantial tax benefits to being self-employed, and that Mr Hammond’s announcement will help the Government claw back much needed revenue.
The Resolution Foundation has been similarly supportive, claiming the increase in NICs for the self-employed is addressing “unfair and expensive tax advantages” that it believes benefit higher earners.
These conclusions are, of course, likely to be scant consolation to many Tory MPs. Which brings us to the second question – how should we react to a broken manifesto promise?
The answer, frankly, is we can’t and shouldn’t be surprised. The world has changed fundamentally in the 22 months since the 2015 General Election. Most notably from a UK perspective because of the vote to leave the EU. And whether you’re a leaver or remainer, it’s clear Brexit will – if only in the short-term – be an expensive process.
Such is the pace of change that we perhaps need to revise our view of political party manifestos as being aspirational rather than finite commitments that will be stuck to come what may. The political environment simply doesn’t accommodate such rigidity, as the Lib Dems found to their cost when it came to tuition fees.
Doubtless Mr Hammond will be rather annoyed by Downing Street’s intervention this morning. But he can at least console himself that heavyweight economists are on his side. And we shouldn’t be surprised to see other manifesto pledges go by the board in the months ahead.