Matthew Gordon-Banks

Time for Rishi to stand up and deliver!

It is said that Rishi Sunak has had a desire to abolish Inheritance Tax for some years. The question may be, just how appropriate is it to do that now, before a General Election widely expected to take place in 2024.

The Prime Minister, together with his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, do have some choices of measures they can take between now and that election. The question is how to use the head-room that is available to them.

The most recent Treasury figures show that only 3.76 per cent of UK deaths result in an inheritance tax charge; but to abolish it requires some £7billion. That is a lot of money which affects so few.

Details of the potential inheritance tax plan come as the government is also working up plans to invest up to £1 billion in towns across the country. Then there is the possibility of saving some money by abolishing/moth-balling HS2 Rail links between Birmingham and Manchester. It is unclear how much money might be “saved” apart from the fact we do know it is already in a massive cost over-run. Additionally, Downing Street has talked up reform of A-levels, with a British baccalaureate that might see every pupil study English and Maths to the age of 18, together with the abolition of what they call “low-grade degrees”. There has also been talk of phasing out smoking in open areas such as pub beer gardens and restaurant terraces.

Many of these options are often ‘put out there’ to test the water of public opinion, but there is no doubt that some plans are afoot. Afterall, there is an election coming!

The policy ideas are part of a campaign by Downing Street to get on the front foot after months of drift. The subject areas were thrashed out by Sunak with his senior aides in a secret meeting in July.

The Prime Minister wants to make a virtue of taking the sort of long-term decisions other leaders have found too difficult. The first, announced last week, was to scale back some net-zero plans that Sunak believed would cost families too much too soon. This is a decision I welcome. The targets and law were set by one of his predecessors who was not exactly renowned for full mastery of detail. We need to ‘do our bit’ in UK, but unless China, India and America are doing theirs it is not going to work as well as it might!

So what should Sunak do? I still regard Sunak as “good news”. We know he is geeky. We know he is a bit of a technocrat but it is reassuring to know that for the first time in a while we have a PM who masters the detail of his brief; and never forget that even a Prime Minister does not have all that much room to move than they may wish. Sir Keir Starmer knows it too.

The five promises Rishi Sunak made are going to be tough ones to keep but they are very much on track with ‘work in progress’. I well recall making five promises myself as a Parliamentary candidate, to my future constituents  – all of them kept – which helped me make a spectacular win at the 1992 General Election. People want some things to vote FOR, not just against. The feel-good factor needs to weigh heavily on the minds of Sunak’s advisors. Little ‘technical wheezes’ won’t work: look what happened to Cameron’s referendum on the EU!

I am not a smoker, but do we really need to abolish all smoking in a segregated area of a beer garden at a pub right  now, ahead of an election? I seriously think not.

Reform of A levels? Surely schools and teachers have been through enough in the last few years. Is this really the time to do more than just ‘float’ the idea, maybe in a manifesto, of further reforming A levels? Schools desperately need a bit of stability.

Under the Levelling-up Agenda – goodness how I hate that phrase and the naming of a Government Department after it – which is both laudable and essential, grants to all parts of the UK for all manner of appropriate good works is a lower cost means to an effective feel-good factor whilst being seen to ‘do the right thing’. I would just insist that any project funded be made to publicly have a sign stating it comes from the appropriate government fund. Why not? The EU insisted on it!

The IHT inheritance tax abolition at £7bn is probably something for the manifesto. The money could be spent – borrowed – to assist far more than just the few. However, HS2 is another matter. It is, frankly, bleeding cash. However, if Rishi Sunak wishes to leave a great mark on the environment, or just a mark, increase the badly needed ‘capacity’ on our railways, give business more certainty and simply do not just ‘cop-out’. Sticking with HS2 is important. I argue the link between Old Oak Common – the middle of nowhere as far as I am concerned – and central London IS vital. It is a huge borrowing project, tighter controls are required – there is absolutely huge waste within the construction industry about it – but it is possibly the biggest infrastructure project of our generation. Allow me to give a personal experience from national level.

In the early 1990’s I served with quasi-judicial power with three others on what became known as The Cross Rail Bill. It sought, promoted by London Underground Limited, to provide an east-west rail link from as far as Berkshire-Buckinghamshire to East London. I always saw it as the ‘bankers line to Heathrow’! Setting aside the incompetence of LUL in the manner it sought to put the Bill through Parliament – they just thought that the considerable brains of Marek, Purchase and Marlow, with me tagging up the rear, were a rubber stamp. Amongst the many things we learned, was for all that money it was not going to reduce congestion on the Central Line tube. In short, it failed because the rare time some MP’s had the intellect and courage to do and say what they felt, led to the collapse of the Bill. I was the only member who voted FOR the Bill to proceed; and even I had serious doubts but never criticised the other three. The establishment were so cross the Private Bill procedure, which has built so much of Britain’s railways, was abolished. The future ‘yes men’ had their day. However the point I make is that eventually Cross Rail – now they call it the Elizabeth Line – was eventually built at much greater cost. Bond Street station alone cost some £500million.

So to Rishi I say, do what makes people happy where you can ahead of an election, but do not fail to do the right thing and be remembered for it regarding HS2. We will pay for it eventually, even on the nations credit card! Most of us cannot hire a helicopter!!

If we are looking for legacy I recall one instance: The late Revd Ian Paisley said to John Major ‘if you bring peace to Northern Ireland you will be remembered far more for that than having to put VAT on gas and electricity at 5% to sort out the country’s finances’.

Time is short. It is time to do the right things.

 

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