Whatever is decided on the 50p tax rate, it will cost Osborne dear

The 50p tax rate is the first occasion Miliband has been properly ahead of the curve.

Ed Miliband has outmaneuvered George Osborne. That may seem a strange thing to be writing less than a week after Labour's leader tried to clamber into the Dispatch box and hide, rather than dare to raise the issue of the economy at Prime Minister's questions. But by floating the prospect of axing the 50p tax rate, our Chancellor has wandered blithely into Miliband's well-laid trap.

Actually, it hasn't even been that well-laid. For the best part of the year, Red Ed has been trying to re-cast himself as the People's Ed. He's felt the pinch of the Squeezed Middle, pointed to the betrayal of "Britain's promise", and attempted to align himself with "the many", whilst David Cameron courted an affluent "few".

This stuff hardly represents political rocket science. It's not even political A-level science. Very few election campaigns have been launched with the slogan; "I am committed to governing for the few, not the many". The Squeezed Middle are merely the latest incarnation of Middle England, Worcester Woman, Mondeo Man and the C2s.

But it's worked. Osborne, for reasons best known to himself, has fallen for it. Actually, he hasn't so much as fallen for it, as let out a hearty "Wahoooo!" and leapt right on in.

Let's think about this for a second. Here are a chancellor and coalition who have spent their entire period in government talking the language of austerity. This time last year, Cameron's assessment was blunt; "I think people do understand the basic proposition, which is we are living beyond our means. We are spending too much and taxing too little and building up our debts". As recently as last week, Osborne was himself holding to the iron line; ""We will stick to the deficit reduction plan we have set out. It is the rock of stability on which our economy is built". To underline the importance of this craggy fiscal outcrop, Britain's most cherished public services have been consistently hurled against it; police cuts in the wake of the riots, army cuts in the run up to the anniversary of 9/11.

Yet Osborne is now seriously contemplating turning that policy, or perhaps more importantly, that narrative, on its head. Suddenly we are to be told "actually, we are taxing too much". Or rather, "we are taxing the richest too much". We are to be told too, "we will not stick to the deficit reduction plan". Or at least, "we will not stick to the deficit reduction plan where it inconveniences the wealthiest". And those police officers and soldiers who were told their jobs were being axed to bring the nation's accounts into balance are to be shown they were, in truth, dispensed with to provide new yachts and private jets for the super-rich.

The Chancellor may point to the statistics, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis that queries whether the 50p rate actually raises any income at all. He may cite the experts, such as the 20 economists who entirely spontaneously wrote to the Financial Times last week calling for the rate to be abolished.

It won't matter. If George Osborne abolishes the 50p tax rate, he'll be blown away. For Ed Miliband and the Labour party it will be like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, it will be more like climbing into the barrel and opening up with an Uzi.

The few instead of the many. The merciless squeezing of the middle. The breaking of Britain's promise. Miliband won't have to say, "listen to me". He will simply say "listen to Osborne".

Even if Osborne belatedly tries to scramble to safety, the trap will still be sprung. If the 50p rate remains, it represents another U-turn, another victory for the opposition. And not over something peripheral, like forests, or school sports. This retreat will have been conducted over an issue that goes to the heart of the government's economic agenda, and in full view of a group of increasingly fractious and rebellious backbench Tory right-wingers.

Since becoming Labour leader, Miliband has not been punching his weight. And he wasn't the heaviest guy in the room to begin with.

Yes, he's landed blows on sentencing reform, welfare reform and phone hacking. But on each occasion, the punch was delayed, or a follow up to an opening made by others.

The 50p tax rate is the first occasion Miliband has been properly ahead of the curve. He has followed a strategy, rather than exploit an opportunity, and it has paid off. Osborne, by contrast, has been staggeringly inept. Possibly that ineptness has been brought about by complacency; a feeling that Labour's inability to make inroads on the economy has gave him license to do as he pleases.

Either way, he is now trapped between Miliband and a hard place. Whatever decision is now made on the 50p tax rate, it will cost Osborne dear.

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Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear