Posted on October 5, 2004

‘Cut Taxes And We’ll Vote Tory’

George Jones, Telegraph (London), Oct. 4

Firm election pledges to cut taxes and control the number of immigrants would help the Conservatives to win the backing of floating voters, a YouGov poll for The Telegraph says today.

The poll, on the opening day of the Tory party conference in Bournemouth, suggests that the battle for swing voters, who will decide the outcome of the election expected next May, is wide open.

It will provide reassurance for Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, who said yesterday that his party could win the election despite coming fourth after the UK Independence Party in last Thursday’s Hartlepool by-election.

YouGov asked floating voters which policies were most likely to persuade them to vote Tory. Curbing immigration came first with 47 per cent; 37 per cent said they wanted a “firm and unambiguous” promise to cut taxes.

Other attractions would be linking future increases in the state pension to earnings, not prices; raising the threshold for inheritance tax to £1 million; and putting 40,000 more police on the beat.

But promising to reverse Labour’s ban on foxhunting is unlikely to be a big electoral asset for the Tories. Only three per cent of floating voters said it would encourage them to back Mr Howard.

The survey underlines the uphill task that Mr Howard faces in persuading voters that the Tories can win. Only 11 per cent think he is providing strong and effective leadership, while 65 per cent say the Conservatives are not ready for government.

Even in his Folkestone and Hythe constituency only 53 per cent of the voters think he is doing a good job, an ICM poll for the Mirror says. Almost a third, 31 per cent, say they are dissatisfied.

The poll findings are likely to intensify a fierce debate among Tories over whether they should fight the election in the centre or concentrate on shoring up their core vote with stronger policies on tax, Europe and law and order.

Mr Howard, who will make his first conference speech as leader tomorrow, denied that he was shifting the party to the Right to try to outflank UKIP. He also rejected suggestions that it would take a “miracle” for the Tories to win. Interviewed on BBC Television’s Breakfast with Frost, he said polls showed that 90 per cent of people thought immigration and asylum were out of control.

He said his party was committed to imposing an annual limit on the number of immigrants and asylum seekers, with a points system for people who wanted to come to work here.

In a speech to party agents last night, Mr Howard said there had been a 20,000 increase in membership in the past year and a good performance in June’s local elections, with 300 new councillors and control of 14 additional councils.

“We have every reason to be confident about the future,” he said. “We have everything to play for.

“The choice before the British people is a clear one: there is the Labour way — more talk, more division and a lame duck Prime Minister; or there is the Conservative way — accountable government, policies to make Britain more free and more secure and strong leadership united behind a noble task, to make Britain a better place for all its citizens.”

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, will portray the Tories today as a low tax party by outlining five “unfair” taxes that he would like to cut or reform: council tax, inheritance tax, stamp duty, income tax and National Insurance thresholds, as well as the taxation of savings and pensions.

Firm pledges will not be made until close to the election when more is known about the state of the nation’s finances.

Mr Letwin will tell the conference that there have been “too many broken promises on tax from too many politicians”. The Conservatives would make “thinning down fat government” and avoiding further tax rises planned by Labour a “moral necessity”.

Liam Fox, the co-chairman of the party, will tell the conference that the Tories will “get a grip” on asylum and stop the country being regarded as a soft touch.

“It is not a lurch to the Right but an overdue response to the real anxieties expressed by the British people,” he will say.

Labour claimed that Mr Howard, like his predecessors William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, was being “driven by desperation to retreat ever further to the Right”. But there were signs that the Conservatives’ decision to highlight what they said were 66 tax rises since Labour came to power had struck a raw nerve with Gordon Brown.

Breaking away from a meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, the Chancellor attacked “irresponsible” Conservative economic policies.

He said that, as had been proved in the early 1990s, “the Tories cannot be trusted on tax and public services”.