If Osborne is opposed to tax avoidance, why did he reward it?

The Chancellor says he's "shocked" by tax avoidance. So why did he cut the 50p rate?

George Osborne's claim that he is "shocked" by the level of tax avoidance in the UK is evidence of either extreme naïveté or extreme cynicism. Are we really to believe that it was only after studying millionaires' tax returns that the Chancellor realised that some of them pay "virtually no" income tax? And does he really think the voters will believe him? 

He told the Daily Telegraph

I was shocked to see that some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs, and to be fair it’s within the tax laws, so that they were regularly paying virtually no income tax. And I don’t think that’s right.

Admirable words, but if Osborne is opposed to tax avoidance, which he has described as "morally repugnant", why did his Budget reward it? The principal reason for the abolition of the 50p tax rate was that high-earners are avoiding it. As Osborne stated in the Budget

HMRC find that an astonishing £16 billion of income was deliberately shifted [emphasis mine] into the previous tax year - at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 billion, something that the previous Government's figures made no allowance for.

But this is an argument for reducing tax avoidance, not for cutting taxes for the top one per cent. While the rich could avoid the 50p rate in the first year of its existence [by bringing forward income from 2010/11 to 2009/10 in order to pay the 40p rate], this is not a trick they could have repeated. Yet Osborne has cut the rate all the same. It is as if he has rewarded welfare cheats by increasing their benefits.

Osborne's insistence, then, that he is "going after" tax avoiders is simply an attempt to change the subject. If the Chancellor really wants to ensure the rich pay their fair share, he should reinstate the 50p rate. 

Chancellor George Osborne: "shocked" by tax avoidance? Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

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