Taxing times

Tories want a mature debate about taxation, but the media is determined to present differing opinions as a split.

As usual, the conference experienced by the representatives here in Bournemouth seems a little different to the subjects the media are obsessed with. So far today every media outlet seems to be talking about tax - something I have yet to hear anyone else talking about here. So at the risk of falling in line with the media agenda, let me give you my twopennyworth on the issue.

The trouble with any meaningful debate on a core issue like tax is that it risks giving the media the headlines they are so desperate to get. TORY SPLIT ON TAX - you can just see it now. It's this sort of headline which demonstrates that it is the media who are debasing the political debate rather than politicians.

There is absolutely no reason why a mature political party should not be able to have an open and reasonable debate over its taxation policy. All political parties are coalitions - the bigger the tent, the more support they are likely to attract. So no one should be in the least bit surprised if people within a party differ on a big issue like tax. It's the same in the LibDems and the Labour Party.

It is a sign of a mature political party that we Conservatives feel able to have a debate about tax at all without fearing a media onslaught. I make no secret that I am a low tax Tory. I believe that a low tax economy is a thriving economy. I believe people spend money better than a Whitehall civil servant. I believe that low taxes increase the tax take, so we can spend more on the great public services.

However, I also believe it would be mad for the Conservative party to commit itself at this stage in the electoral cycle to specific tax cuts. No, but we do need a commitment to the broad principle of low taxation. We simply cannot go into the next election merely echoing Labour's existing tax and spending plans. The electorate in this country is crying out for a real choice, we should give it to them. No one is going to turn out to vote on a wet Thursday in May 2009 if they feel all three parties are offering broadly the same policies.

And the thing is, it is so easy to offer changes in the tax system which people could embrace. I am hoping that Michael Forsyth's tax commission will come up with some of these. It should come as little surprise to anyone that a tax commission chaired by Forsyth would suggest a reduction in taxes and government spending. Or indeed that a competitiveness commission led by John Redwood would propose similar measures.

Cynics suggest that David Cameron and George Osborne are spoiling for a fight on this issue. I think this is Westminster village gossip taken one stage too far. They should welcome a considered debate on tax and I am sure they do. But at the same time they shouldn't rule out offering tax reductions in the next manifesto.

This whole tax debate needs to demonstrate that the Conservative party has matured and that we can have it without rancour. But the media also needs to mature and cover the debate intelligently and without a constant craving for lurid headlines. But I'm not holding my breath