Gauke has left the Tories looking even more out-of-touch

"Cash-in-hand" payments are wrong but Gauke was the wrong person to say so.

With his declaration that it is "morally wrong" to pay tradesmen "cash-in-hand", Treasury minister David Gauke has managed to antagonise both the left and the right. For the left, Gauke's comments are a cynical attempt to distract attention from wealthy tax avoiders, for the right they are an illegitimate attempt to enforce morality.

Here's the offending statement in full:

Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax. I think it is morally wrong. It is illegal for the plumber but it is pretty implicit in those circumstances that there is a reason why there is a discount for cash. That is a large part of the hidden economy.

Ignore for the moment that Gauke is a minister in a government that immorally reduced taxes for the richest, and it is hard to take issue with his comments. Either tax avoidance is morally wrong or it isn't. The difference between paying a plumber cash-in-hand and placing your earnings in a limited company (as Ken Livingstone did), is one of degree, not kind. One can argue, as some on the right do, that "tax efficiency" is neither illegal nor immoral, but that isn't the left's position.

What has already become clear this morning is that Gauke was the wrong person to deliver this message. As Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, he is a member of a government that, at a time of austerity, has raised taxes on the poorest, while reducing them for the richest, and that has done all too little to combat prolific avoiders. The discovery that Gauke's wife is a tax avoidance lawyer, leaves him further exposed. Most voters will see his comments as further evidence that the "out-of-touch" Tories are determined to squeeze the little guy. First they came for you pasty, now they come for your plumber. The Treasury has already issued a clarification, stating that Gauke was answering a specific question, not outlining government policy. But with his comments now the subject of countless phone-in debates, the damage has already been done.

Treasury minister David Gauke said it was "morally wrong" to pay plumbers cash-in-hand. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.