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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.