Why Nick Clegg's still taxing Cameron and Miliband

The Lib Dem leader and the coming Budget.

It remains a curiosity of today's political scene that a small and unpopular party bumping along on 7 to 10 per cent in opinion polls is making the waves on the central issue of tax policy. On this one issue at least, the two main parties find themselves reacting to the gauntlet the Liberal Democrats have laid down.

Nick Clegg's recent speech to the Resolution Foundation making the case for going further and faster in reaching a personal tax allowance of £10,000 has been widely reported as a significant moment in the genesis of the forthcoming budget which due to the precarious position of the economy, and the increasingly creaky nature of the Coalition, is destined to be a highly charged affair both fiscally and politically.

Significant it may have been, but not for the rather mundane reason that the leader of the Liberal Democrats made the case for delivering on one of his central manifesto commitments as soon as possible. Dog bites man.

It was, however, noteworthy for three less commented upon reasons.

First, because it was an attempt to signal the end of the Liberal Democrats "give and take" strategy in relation to those on low and middle incomes. Up until now each rise in the personal allowance (or indeed progress on other Liberal Democrat priorities) has been funded in large part by cuts to tax credits and increases in taxes that particularly hurt the precise group the Liberal Democrats state they are seeking to help.

Hitherto this has completely neutered their claims to being a force for tax fairness. Clegg's new and unmistakeable message is that this time it will be different. From now on the wealthy should pay for further increases in the tax allowance - whether through wealth taxes, less avoidance or cuts in higher rate pension tax-relief.

If Clegg can make this approach stick -- and that is a very big if -- it makes additional increases in the personal allowance a different political proposition for both the Conservatives (a straightforward hit to some of their core support) and Labour (why oppose?).

That said, this new and potentially more progressive approach to funding increased tax allowances may well be completely lost on the public given that deep cuts to tax credits already in the pipeline (based on previous budgets that Clegg signed up to) will bear down on the working poor for years to come.

Second, Clegg's budget intervention represented the next stage in the Lib Dem's differentiation strategy. They expect, but still don't know for sure, that Osborne will agree to some progress on personal allowances. But even if they fail their judgement is that they would be better to do so having at least have looked publicly distinct (even if ultimately ineffectual), rather than seeming to meekly go along with whatever Osborne ends up announcing.

Playing your budget hand quite so openly is a high-stakes move, and not one borne from a position of strength.

Finally, Clegg's open air budget negotiations have certainly turned up the heat on Labour. Over the last few weeks there have been many more column inches written about Liberal Democrat-Tory budget disagreements then there have been about the opposition's position.

Moreover, Clegg has stolen a march on his opponents both in terms of being the leader talking about taxing the rich and the one reported as caring about cutting income tax on the low paid. Right now it is he who is occupying this large swath of political terrain -- more baggy centre, then squeezed middle -- which is about rebalancing the tax system so it better chimes with our straightened times.

Labour to date have been largely silent on this tax rebalancing argument, though Ed Miliband has been nodding towards the need for increased taxes at the top. Ed Balls' intervention yesterday was significant therefore not just in that it broadened out Labour's position on tax cuts from VAT towards other measures, like personal allowances, that the coalition might actually move on. But it also succeeded in inserting Labour into the middle of the Budget debate.

All three parties face some delicate judgements over the next four weeks. George Osborne will need to balance carefully his instinctive reluctance (and that of his backbenchers) to hand a major victory to Clegg with the potentially destabilising effects for the Coalition of the Liberal Democrats coming away with nothing.

Labour will need to strain to explain to a sceptical public how its call for large tax cuts in the here and now fits with its renewed determination to reclaim fiscal responsibility over the medium term, a theme which was so much in evidence at the turn of the year. And they rapidly need to come up with ideas of their own to prove it is they who are best placed to lead the debate on tax fairness.

Meanwhile Clegg desperately needs to show that he can convert his recent media momentum on tax reform into a Budget victory -- and, more than that, into an upward tick in the polls.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity