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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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