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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.