Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid communications campaign made lab rats of us all

4 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign, apparently designed by behavioural psychologists, to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions …”

In the Commons’ debate on the Sue Gray report, Steve Baker’s intervention was one of the few which did not prompt the Prime Minister to remind us that he is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

The MP for Wycombe took the PM to task over Government messaging in connection with Covid. Not only had people meticulously followed the rules (unlike a certain First Lord of the Treasury and his wife, perhaps?), but their mental health had suffered.

Baker’s question on Monday highlights the growing unease that the messaging was unethical and its results malign. It also called into the question the role of behaviour psychology, the science of what drives our decision-making. It seems the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be looking into the use of “nudge” tactics in connection with the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Recent reports on Covid’s collateral damage highlight an increased risk of measles because the take-up of MMR jabs is the lowest in a decade, as well as an £8.7 billion loss thanks to defective and unsuitable PPE. Such missteps in connection with public policy – inadvertent or not – are quantifiable. Assessments about burning through taxpayers’ hard-earned money in a pandemic-induced public-spending spree are far easier than judging the impact of Covid comms and the tactics to ensure the acceptance of public health measures.

It must be remembered that back in early 2020, the Government was flying blind, needing to do something, anything, to protect us from a possible plague. In addition, behavioural science – which informed some of the messaging – is meant to tap into our subconscious minds. But even raising the subject of possible subliminal coercion risks comparisons with incel-prone nutters, breathless with conspiracy theories about how the Pfizer/Moderna/AZ clot shot will turn us all into lizards.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), better known as the Nudge Unit, was set up by David Cameron in the early days of the Coalition to improve the workings of government by injecting an understanding of human behaviour into policy. Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by its director David Halpern chronicles how small changes – such as reminders from HMRC that ‘most people pay their tax on time’ – can produce big results, at almost no financial cost.

Nudging has been used across government departments for the past decade. It has saved the taxpayer millions by, for example, reducing missed medical appointments. As Prof Halpern states, nudges work on an unconscious, automatic level: “Behaviourally-based interventions can operate below the conscious radar of busy citizens.”

According to Gray, “The UK Government put in place far-reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.” The overwhelming majority of us complied with the lockdowns. How far the Government and its agencies coerced us into this compliance, not least by deliberate fearmongering, is now coming onto the conscious radar of Britain’s busy citizens.

SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of SAGE, set out Options for Increasing Social Distancing Measures in a paper on March 22 2020. As it stated, “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

In 2020, the Government spent £184 million on Covid-related advertising, including on the message that if we went out, we could spread the virus and ‘People Will Die’. This is bullying, not bribing, taxpayers with their own money. Was the emetic ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran’ inspired by SPI-B’s recommendation that messaging needs to emphasise the duty to protect others?

With its calamitous forecasting record, if it were Paddy Power, SAGE would have gone bust long ago. Among members of SPI-B, three are from BIT, one is a communist and four declined to give their names. So much for transparency. Last month, Simon Ruda, a BIT co-founder, stated that fewer than one per cent of its staff supported Brexit. If behavioural science is meant to correct the biases that lead us into making poor decisions, surely diversity of opinion should be encouraged?

Spun off from the Cabinet Office in 2014, BIT is now a global consultancy with 250 staff. In December, the government announced it will sell its one-third stake to innovation agency Nesta, whose Chief Executive stated in the Financial Times that “tackling Covid has shown what, properly applied, behavioural insights can do.” Mask-wearing, apparently, shows compliance with social norms and is a wider signal for others to take precautions.

Project Fear 2.0 included the daily Terror at Tea-Time press conferences, with their update on the Covid death toll. Even today, the tally is a context-free zone. We are still told nothing about, for example, how many people have recovered from the virus and been discharged from hospital. Why not? We need some positive news, not more doom porn.

Who doesn’t know people who are still reluctant to leave their homes? After almost two years of relentless bombardment about disease and death, caution is understandable. Fearing contamination – especially during the Hands, Face, Space phase of messaging – householders disinfected their deliveries or left them outside their front doors for days.

Given we still have a state broadcaster and the millions shovelled their way, it is unsurprising that much of the media have become outposts of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. In the context of the Government’s Covid response, we heard too few voices of dissent and too much cheer-leading for the dystopia it was creating.

The messaging and manipulation is beginning to look counter-productive. Children have foregone their MMR jabs not least because parents heeded warnings about avoiding GP surgeries and hospitals. On Wednesday, a study by John Hopkins University found that lockdowns had little impact, perhaps reducing the death rate by 0.2 per cent.

Last July, Laura Dodsworth published A State of Fear – How the Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Endorsed by Lord Sumption, it was dismissed by The Times’ David Aaronovitch as ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. Thankfully, some MPs are finally starting to do their job of holding the Executive to account and we might get to see whose call is correct.

Public policy often tries to change our behaviour. Being encouraged to eat five a day is, however, completely different from being coerced into ceding our freedoms, human rights and liberty. Ethics vanished.

As Prof Halpern noted, “Many experiments are run which depend on the subject not knowing they are part of the experiment.”

We, the lab rats, eh?

Mirza quits as Johnson’s policy chief

3 Feb

In another blow for Boris Johnson, Munira Mirza, Head of Number 10’s Policy Unit, has resigned from her position, blaming the Prime Minister’s Jimmy Savile attack on Keir Starmer.

James Forsyth of The Spectator has the full write up of what happened here, including extracts from a letter Mirza wrote to Johnson, which reads:

“I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice. There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse. You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”

“You are a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand which is why it is so desperately sad that you let yourself down by making a scurrilous accusation against the Leader of the Opposition.”

Mirza’s departure will be particularly difficult for Johnson, who once named her as one of the five women who have most inspired him. They have worked together for over 14 years, Mirza being one of his advisers when he was the Mayor of London. A colossal wound politically – but personally even more so.

Daniel Hannan: The Government’s new Brexit vision looks like thin, watery, tasteless gruel

2 Feb

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

On Monday, I picked up the Government’s new paper, The Benefits of Brexit: How the UK is taking advantage of leaving the EU, hoping to be cheered up. The point of leaving the EU, after all, was to remove constraints, allowing us to make different and better choices. Two years after Brexit, and a year after the end of the transition, how are we doing?

Overall, I’m afraid, the document is thin, watery, tasteless gruel. Yes, there are tasty lumps here and there. Replacing the Common Agricultural Policy with a subsidy regime that rewards rural stewardship rather than food production is in the interests of farmers, consumers and the countryside.

Taking back control over our fishing grounds is likewise in the interests of both fishermen and fish. We’ve tapped some irritating pebbles from our shoes – the tampon tax, EU passports, restrictions on Imperial measures.

But most of the gains listed here are aspirational. Yes, we could have a better alternative to the GDPR rules. Yes, we could lead the world in AI. Yes, we could be more open to trade. Yes, we could scrap the most burdensome aspects Solvency II, MiFID II and the rest of the EU’s financial services apparatus. But, so far, we haven’t.

Here are 100 pages of civil servantese. I don’t just mean that the document was literally written by officials; I mean its worldview is that of Whitehall. Again and again, we see listed as “gains” such things as a new regulatory regime, a new agency or a new subsidy mechanism. The idea that leaving the EU might mean fewer regulations – a major theme of Vote Leave, which went into granular detail in its million-word manifesto Change or Go, has been forgotten.

All talk of cheaper energy is gone. It is now clear that, outside the EU, Britain will go beyond what it was obliged to do as a member. So has any notion of a less rigid labour market: BEIS has halted even the moderate plans to apply the Working Time Directive in the more flexible way that several EU members do.

Regulations that ran into universal opposition when they were imposed are being left in place because existing producers, having assimilated the compliance costs, don’t want new entrants to avoid them. The idea that the Government should act in the interest of the nation as a whole, making things cheaper for consumers and thus boosting growth, has been sacrificed to the civil service obsession with favoured client groups – or, as they are known in the jargon, “stakeholders”.

Why is a government elected to deliver Brexit being so timid? Is it Boris Johnson’s fault? Should we blame his ministers? Or the Blob? Let’s consider the options.

A charge commonly levelled at the PM is that he lacks staying power, that he tosses out dazzling ideas only to back away when he realises that they involve short-term unpopularity. Even when they are popular, runs the argument, he often loses interest, allowing them to sink into the quicksand of Whitehall inertia.

Plainly some of that has been going on here. For example, the Trade Remedies Authority, created to assess whether existing tariffs or other barriers could be justified, gave its first judgment on the steel duties that Brussels had imposed in retaliation against Donald Trump. It called for most of them to be repealed.

The PM overruled it, seemingly at the behest of some MPs in steel-producing constituencies. Having made the finest defence of free trade by any major leader as recently as February 2020, he thus now has a 100 per cent record of intervening from a protectionist direction. Indeed, protectionism is suddenly being presented as a benefit of Brexit: “We created the Trade Remedies Authority to help defend UK economic interests by investigating complaints from UK industries.”

Britain’s approach to trade has been almost as prone to producer capture as the EU’s. Even when dealing with countries as well-disposed as Australia and New Zealand, we have dragged our feet (almost all the delays were on the British side). How much more mercantilist will we be when it comes to India or Mexico?

Then again, the more specific the problems, the harder it is to blame them all on Number 10. The Government is crowing about freeports, for example – and it is certainly true that freeports can create growth in ways that were illegal in the EU. But only if they have meaningful powers, especially when it comes to lowering or scrapping taxes – something that Treasury officials appear to have blocked.

Brexit gave us the chance to set aside some of the EU’s more Luddite rules on gene editing. Again, the intentions seemed to be there. Ministers fought the Blob to get Matt Ridley appointed to the relevant advisory committee, which duly proposed sensible ways in which we could seize the economic and environmental opportunities. Nothing happened. After trying several times to turn his recommendations into policy, Ridley quit politics – a real loss to the nation.

Most disappointing of all has been the failure to deregulate financial services. While we were in the EU, we voted against several pointless new rules, some of which seemed expressly designed to drive business from London to Paris and Frankfurt. Often, we lost. But, now that we are free to repeal these laws, we seem reluctant to do so – even though, by denying us equivalence, the EU has removed any incentive to stick to its standards.

Whenever you push them, Treasury ministers say that it’s all in hand, that they’re conducting a review and something or other and mimblewimble. But, more than two years after winning an 80-seat majority, the Government has done nothing. Indeed, there is a real prospect that the EU will remove the more burdensome aspects of the Solvency II regime before Britain does.

I’m afraid ministers must accept collective responsibility here. In theory, they want deregulation. In practice, they don’t want it in their own departments. And they don’t want it because change – especially change that pits them against their officials – is hard work and leads to bad short-term headlines.

Which brings us to the real problem. The only way to deliver an economically liberal agenda is to take on the Blob – not just civil servants and quangos, but all the associated corporatists and rent-seekers and CBI bureaucrats who have attached themselves to the status quo. That requires not just courage but time, patience and single-mindedness.

Dominic Cummings was supposedly brought in to get on top of the Blob. He failed. Perhaps he was better at stating the problem than at tackling it. Perhaps he lacked support. Perhaps he was overtaken by the coronavirus. Whatever the explanation, I fear the moment has passed.

How telling that this administration – this supposedly Brexit-focused, anti-nanny-state, freedom-loving administration – has dropped the one-in-one-out rule on regulations that David Cameron and Theresa May followed. Apparently it was deemed to be incompatible with the net zero agenda.

We paid a high price during the exit negotiations for the right to diverge from EU standards. I was one of those who argued for moderation – for accepting a Swiss-type deal so as to avoid many of the rows we went on to face over Northern Ireland.

I lost that argument and we went for absolute regulatory freedom. OK, fine: I’m happy to get with the programme. But it is idiotic to pay that price and then not use the freedoms it bought. There was recently a time when almost every Conservative MP understood that. Where have they all gone?

Will Tanner: Everyone knows the moral case for levelling up. But it makes economic sense too.

2 Feb

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

“Our plan now, this new Government I am leading, is to unite our country and level up.” So said Boris Johnson in his first speech as Prime Minister more than two years ago. Today the Government finally sets out that plan in the form of the Levelling Up White Paper. But why does it matter?

The political argument for levelling up is straightforward. The Conservatives assembled an electoral coalition in 2019 that is both more likely to live in poorer places and more working class than even the Labour Party. Those votes, in the Prime Minister’s words, were “lent”. They need to be repaid. If the Conservatives want to retain their majority, it is politically essential that levelling up delivers.

The moral case is simple. The last few decades have been good for some places and people, and very bad for others. The gap between the UK’s richest and poorest regions has grown. Returns to graduate labour have increased and returns to vocations have diminished. The social fabric of coastal and industrial towns, particularly, has deteriorated. Civic pride has been squandered.

But the economic case is less intuitive. Economic orthodoxy would say that the best thing governments can do for growth is to get out of the way. To neoclassical economists, levelling up is the economic equivalent of pushing water uphill: eye-wateringly expensive and ultimately futile.

This conventional wisdom is seductive to centre right thinkers given it prioritises market forces and downplays the role of the state. But it is also a narrow view of how economies work in practice, and short-sighted about the damage regional disparities can do to growth. Here are five reasons why levelling up is not just morally and politically sensible, but economically the right thing to do too.

1. More regionally balanced economies are richer overall

The UK is one of the most interregionally unequal countries in the industrialised world. Only Romania and Poland have larger productivity gaps between regions. In the UK, three times the share of people (35 per cent) live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average than in Germany (12 per cent). As Philip McCann has painstakingly evaluated, the UK scores among the worst economies on 24 measures of spatial equality, covering regional GDP, productivity and disposable income, and at all levels of geography.

Regional productivity disparities between the UK and 18 EU regions

 

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

This matters because more balanced economies tend to be stronger overall. Among the G20 there are no large countries more regionally imbalanced than the UK and also richer than the UK per head.

The reverse is also true; all large countries which are richer than the UK appear to be more balanced. This suggests that far from water trickling down hill from superstar regions like London, the opposite may be true. The UK’s overall productivity level may be being undermined by the decoupling of London from the rest of the economy.

2. The UK has been actively imbalancing itself for decades

An argument frequently made against levelling up is that it means cutting down tall poppies to grow green shoots elsewhere. This would obviously be a mistake. Levelling up will clearly fail if it pits places against one another and fails to learn from our success stories.

But we should also recognise that the current system suffers from an inadvertent Matthew Effect that directs growth-enhancing spending to already-successful places and away from places more likely to suffer market failure. To extend the analogy, the poppies get all the fertiliser.

This is evident almost everywhere the government takes a role in the economy. In recent decades, London has received nearly three times as much transport spending, five times as much affordable housing funding, and five times as much cultural spending as the average region.

The effect of this is two-fold. First, to accelerate the widening gap between the capital and the rest, and, second, to increase pressure on housing and infrastructure in the places that are most opposed to further development – London and the South East.

3. The UK’s drivers of innovation will exacerbate divides further if left unchecked

Productivity arises from innovation, defined broadly, both at a national and regional level. The development of new ideas, processes and technologies leads to spillovers that drive up the output per hour of workers and firms and living standards rise as a result. But the UK’s innovation economy is heavily skewed towards the Greater South East, meaning these spillovers are also geographically concentrated.

This is most apparent in R&D funding. Half (47 per cent) of the core government research budget is spent in just three cities: Oxford, Cambridge and London, and the capital receives twice as much R&D funding per capita than the UK average. According to some studies, this gap amounts to a £4 billion a year gap in R&D spending for the UK’s least prosperous regions.

Spending on R&D by NUTS1 region within the UK, 2016 (split by market-led (business) and non-market-led (government, university and charity))

Source: Richard Jones and Tom Forth

The effect of this on economic performance is considerable. Last year, Onward showed that 72 per cent of R&D intensive jobs created in the last decade were created within the regions containing London, Oxford and Cambridge, despite those places representing just 20 per cent of the population.

But the prize is even bigger: a recent BEIS-sponsored report estimated that spending the entirety of the uplift of R&D spending outside London, Cambridge and Oxford would boost GDP by 0.8 per cent by 2040, compared to spending the money equally around the country.

4. Modern economies make levelling up more important, not less

These challenges are exacerbated by the way the global knowledge economy drives inequality and undermines high levels of growth – in relation to the competitiveness of workers, the power of firms, and the connectivity of places.

Returns are increasing for high-skilled knowledge economy workers. Robert Reich wrote in the 1980s of an emerging divide between ‘symbolic analysts’, routine production workers and in-person service workers. David Goodhart divided them more snappily as ‘head, hand, heart.’ Our skills system has not kept pace with these rapid changes to the structure of the labour market, and workers in low productivity places are increasingly unable to access the highest paying jobs.

The structure of modern firms presents challenges, with tech companies adopting platform models that operate differently from previous industrial titans. David Autor has highlighted the rise of ‘superstar firms’ who benefit from network effects and the highly scalable returns to intangible capital identified by Jonathan Haskel and Stain Westlake. Superstar firms present a challenge for workers by reducing wage competition, and can worsen regional inequalities by concentrating economic activity without shouldering the tax burden to support investment elsewhere.

Knowledge economies also reward places with high levels of connectivity. AnnaLee Saxenian’s study of why Silicon Valley beat Boston’s Route 128 to become a global tech hub points to the dense and nimble network of relationships between workers, firms, and universities. In the UK, these networks are weak – characterised by Andy Haldane as a ‘Hub (London) with No Spokes’. We have world beating companies and universities, but we don’t connect them with other clusters or places in the way that is rewarded by the new global economic structure.

5. The UK’s cities underperform relative to international competitors

This lack of networks is particularly true of Britain’s second-tier cities, which punch well below their weight. Places like Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow are significantly less productive than peers like Brussels, Marseille, and Madrid, and don’t see the agglomeration effects that you would expect based on their size and available labour market.

As work from the Centre for Cities has highlighted, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225 billion larger. While transport connectivity has often been cited as the key barrier to productivity, Onward’s research has pointed to factors like skills and R&D intensity as more significant contributors to this gap.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, the Government is right to want to change the economic geography of the UK. It is true that the UK’s regional differences are longstanding. It is true that they will be hard to shift.

But that does not make the challenge any less urgent, morally, politically or economically. Levelling Up is not about reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator. It is about bringing everyone up to their potential.

As Margaret Thatcher said once, “People think that at the top there isn’t much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is that there is tons of room at the top.” We have done it before, as shown below. We must do it again.

UK regional productivity differences between 1901 and 2017

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

If the Government wants to get on with Brexit de-regulation, it needs to put ministers clearly in charge

1 Feb

Yesterday, exactly two years after the UK left the European Union, the Government announced a “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. Its purpose is to “end the special status of EU law” and “ensure that it can be more easily amended or removed.” 

The Government has estimated that it will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses through the removal of EU regulations, much of which were kept on as a “messy compromise”, as its announcement put it, from hurried negotiations.

Soon after the announcement, Boris Johnson tweeted that “we have taken back control of our money, our borders and laws”. But others haven’t been so sure that Britain has, specifically around legal and regulatory matters.

One newspaper today reports, for instance, that the Government has watered down plans “to ditch Brussels regulations” put together by David Frost, the former Brexit Minister, because they weren’t compatible with its net zero plans.

This has already led to intense criticism of the Government and Prime Minister. At best, they are sending out mixed messages about the extent to which they will light a “bonfire of EU rules”, as media reports have suggested.

It’s long been known that one of the major selling points of leaving the EU was the opportunity to become truly independent, including a divergence from the trade bloc’s regulations, many of which have been blamed for stifling the potential of British businesses. Solvency II, for example, was singled out by Theresa Villiers yesterday in ConservativeHome, which she blamed for forcing “UK-based insurers to hold too much capital back”.

Villiers has been part of a taskforce asked by Johnson to look into how the UK can de-regulate effectively. She, Iain Duncan Smith and George Freeman compiled a 130-page report last year, setting out 100 recommendations for this, based on consultations with businesses, academics, think tanks and colleagues, among other experts, so as to help Britain fulfil its potential.

But today’s news – as well as it being almost a year since the taskforce released its suggestions – hint at wider issues with the Government’s de-regulatory project. First, there are clearly disputes about how far it should go in cutting the red tape. Second, and partly why the Government is sending out contradictory messages, is that there has been no official replacement for Frost since he stepped down in his role last December.

Since his departure, Liz Truss, as recently appointed Foreign Secretary, has been tasked with overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol; one of the biggest briefs of a Brexit Minister. But government insiders are keen for designated ministers to handle regulatory reform, and hold Whitehall’s feet to the fire.

One contender for having overall oversight of such a project is Steve Barclay, currently serving as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, the responsibility could be shared. Freeman, a member of the taskforce and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Research and Innovation is reportedly keen to manage the 10 sectors most in need of reform, having written about them in great detail in the 130-page report, and feeling that these areas fall naturally into his department.

Given that it has been two years since Brexit, as we have been reminded this week, the delay over action on regulations is not what one would call a “good look” for the Government. With the pandemic, as well as the partygate saga hanging over the Prime Minister’s head, it’s no surprise that Number 10 has been slow to appoint a new Brexit Minister/ authority, or even make noises about the need for it.

But the clock is ticking. With Johnson’s enemies keen to ram home that his government, as well as Brexit, has been a disaster, getting a “Reformer in Chief” is the fastest way to “take back control”.

James Roberts: Johnson and Sunak shouldn’t kid themselves. Voters are not impressed by astronomical tax bills.

31 Jan

James Roberts is political director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

In their joint piece for yesterday’s Sunday Times, the Prime Minister and Chancellor declared themselves “tax-cutting Conservatives” and simultaneously confirmed that they planned to hike taxes to the highest level since Clement Attlee.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the new political map of Britain. The 2019 general election brought traditional Tory areas and former Labour seats in the “Red Wall” under one roof. Off the back of his promise to “level up” the regions, perhaps Boris Johnson has calculated that this requires greater public investment and Brits can afford higher taxes to pay for it. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Taxpayers, regardless of where they live, don’t want to pay more. As figures released today by the TaxPayers’ Alliance show, the average household can already expect to pay over £1.1 million in tax over their lifetimes. They’ll pay nearly £480,000 in income tax and £190,000 in VAT. Far from being a tax-cutting government, this is one which is seeing typical families across the UK becoming tax millionaires.

This isn’t just a problem for the so-called affluent Tory heartlands. The bottom 20 per cent of earners need to work almost 24 years to pay off their £450,000 tax bill – more than half their working lives. This is the group who will be hit hardest by rising energy prices and the wider cost of living crisis. Many of them will have voted Conservative in 2019 for the first time, for a manifesto which promised not to increase income tax, national insurance, and VAT.

Yet it’s under the Conservatives that we have seen the biggest increases in the lifetime tax burden. It has risen by almost £350,000 for the average household since 2015-16, compared to a rise of £250,000 between 1999-2000 and 2015-16. Since 1977, the amount of tax you’ll pay in your life has doubled in real terms.

And this is all before the impact of the national insurance rise is felt. Add in corporation tax hikes, council tax increases and fiscal drag from frozen income tax thresholds and it means that things will likely get worse. While Johnson and Rishi Sunak have claimed they are low-taxers at heart, ordinary families who are now tax millionaires will find it increasingly difficult to believe.

Politicians are stretching their credibility on tax policy to breaking point. Breaking the pledge on national insurance, to throw money at an unreformed health and social care system, won’t please anyone. Polling from Public First’s James Frayne, columnist for this site, has shown that Conservatives are losing their reputation for keeping taxes low. More working-class voters consider the national insurance rise to be unfair than fair.

And it’s easy to see why. Someone currently earning £15,000 pays £652 of it in national insurance. With the 1.25 percentage point increase this will rise by £68 to £720, an effective rise in how much taxpayers will be paying of more than 10 per cent. So, with a cost of living crisis, the government has decided now is the time to accelerate the tax burden toward a 70-year high and lump low paid workers with an even bigger tax bill.

Despairing Conservatives may well wonder what the alternative could be. How can politicians guarantee investment while keeping their promises of keeping taxes low? Well let’s remember that when it comes to fiscal discipline, there are two sides to the ledger. As the country emerges from Covid, there could not be a more appropriate time for addressing public spending and refocusing funds on areas where they are most needed. Save to spend, if you will.

Much tougher action is needed to root out waste, reform service delivery and get value for taxpayers’ money. Heed Lord Agnew’s call to take waste seriously. Establish a Parliamentary Budget Committee to assess spending before it happens, rather than just hearing in detail afterwards how money was wasted. End national pay bargaining, address excessive public sector pay and – if they insist on working from home – end the London weighting for Whitehall civil servants. Defund the ridiculous schemes and the wasteful quangos, like the Arts Council. Reform pensioner benefits. And yes, properly cut foreign aid. The list goes on.

But don’t pretend raising the lifetime tax bill further is the only option. One sure way for Johnson, or any future leader of the Conservatives, to keep the new Tory coalition together would be to let taxpayers keep more of their own hard-earned money.