Falling in and out of love with the Institute for Fiscal Studies

Shock! Horror! Nick Clegg and George Osborne have changed their tunes since entering government.

Here's our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, castigating the Institute for Fiscal Studies in a Guardian interview with Patrick Wintour and Nick Watt:

I think you have to call a spade a spade. We just fundamentally disagree with the IFS. It goes back to a culture of how you measure fairness that took root under Gordon Brown's time, where fairness was seen through one prism and one prism only, which was the tax and benefits system. It is complete nonsense to apply that measure, which is a slightly desiccated Treasury measure. People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.

Clegg has form when it comes to attacking the think tank's regular critiques of the coalition's "progressive" credentials. But in opposition, the Lib Dem leader was a big fan of the economic pointy-heads at the IFS. Here he is, during the election campaign, speaking in the third leaders' debate on 29 April:

I was really delighted at the Institute of Fiscal Studies when they compared the three parties' manifestos this week and said very, very clearly – and very directly – that our proposal to lift the income-tax threshold to £10,000 is the best incentive to work.

So he's "delighted" when the IFS praises his party but "fundamentally disagrees" when it criticises his coalition. Convenient, eh? And this is the man who once championed the "new politics" . . . Oh dear . . .

The Chancellor, George Osborne, also rejected the IFS analysis of his "regressive" Spending Review yesterday in a round of early-morning interviews, in which he said:

I think if you look at all the measures, you can see that everyone in society has got to make a contribution but the richest do make the biggest contribution, not just in cash terms but as a proportion of their income.

Again, in opposition, Boy George sang a different tune. He praised the IFS as a "much-respected independent insitute" and told MPs in the Commons on 22 March 2007:

As often happens, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked into the figures and it has confirmed that it is a very substantially tax-raising Budget. Will the minister now confirm that the IFS is right?

But the best line of all from Osborne came in the opening remark of an interview he did about Labour's last Budget on 26 March:

I am waiting for the Institute for Fiscal Studies's analysis.

[Hat-tip: Jason Beattie of the Mirror]

And then our politicians wonder why the media and the public are so cynical and distrusting . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.