The Tories and the 50p tax rate

What if a general election is held before the new top rate is introduced? The Tories should be asked

Today's Daily Telegraph includes a story suggesting that if the Conservatives win power they won't abolish the 50p tax rate until the end of their first time. But the paper rather too readily makes the assumption that the tax won't be introduced before the next election.

The new top rate of income tax is currently due to take effect from April but given the febrile state of UK politics there's no reason to assume that an election won't have been held by then. Gordon Brown may well wish to avoid going to the polls in May, the last possible date for a general election, as John Major did in 1997. An earlier election would also allow Labour to neatly avoid breaking their 2005 pledge not to raise income tax.

In any case, the Conservatives should be asked whether they would be prepared not merely to live with the 50p rate but to actually introduce it. A failure to do so would leave the party vulnerable to the charge that they are prepared to let the less well-off bear the brunt of tax rises.

The story also quotes a Conservative source who bizarrely claims that the 50p rate will "remind people of the worst of Labour". In fact, a YouGov/Telegraph poll carried out shortly after the budget found that 68 per cent of the public support the measure. The finding is tucked away at the bottom of this story.

Labour should exploit the difficulties the tax rate causes the Tories far more than it has done. The 50p rate can be added to the divisions between Boris Johnson and David Cameron explored by my colleague James Macintyre earlier this week. Johnson has called for the Conservatives to unequivocally reject the new rate, accusing Labour of waging a new "class war".

And if Cameron fails to deliver for the right in power, expect the party's unreconstructed Thatcherites to raise this issue again.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.