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.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.