Voters want Cameron to come clean on the 50p tax cut

Sixty two per cent of voters want the PM to say whether he will benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate, private polling by Labour shows.

On the eve of the Labour conference, the Conservatives sought to unsettle Ed Miliband by releasing private polling showing that most voters believed David Miliband would have made a better leader and that Miliband lacked the qualities required of a prime minister. Now, as the Tories head to Birmingham for their annual gathering, Labour has released its own mischevious poll.

After Miliband alleged in his conference speech that David Cameron would receive the "millionaire’s tax cut", a private poll for the party by ICM (sample size: 2,009) has shown that a majority of voters want Cameron to say whether he will benefit from the abolition of the 50p rate. Asked whether the Prime Minister should "come clean and tell people honestly whether he is personally benefitting from this" or whether it was "a matter only for him", 62% said the former and 22% the latter. Among Conservative voters, 46% wanted Cameron to "come clean", while 40% agreed it was a private matter.

Aware of how much damage the Tories inflicted on Ken Livingstone over his tax arrangements (and with an eye to how the Obama campaign forced Mitt Romney onto the defensive over his tax bill), Labour is out for revenge. Miliband used the final PMQs before the conference season to challenge Cameron on whether he would benefit from the 50p tax cut, describing it as "a question he would have to answer between now and April" (when the tax cut is formally introduced). Cameron has so far refused to give an answer (unlike George Osborne, who said he would not benefit from the move) and, under ever-greater pressure from Labour, the Tories will need to decide whether this strategy is sustainable.

The poll also reminds us just how unpopular the decision to abolish the top rate is. The survey, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday this week, found that 71% of voters think the coalition should abandon the tax cut. Asked whether, "with government borrowing coming in higher than expected", the government should "cancel plans to cut tax for people on £150,000 a year", 45% strongly agreed it should, while 25% somewhat agreed. Seven per cent strongly disagreed that it should and 10% somewhat disagreed. By 65% to 26%, Conservative voters also opposed the tax cut going ahead. 

Were this not a private poll, it's unlikely that the question would have appeared in that form ("with government borrowing coming in higher than expected" is designed to lead voters to the desired answer) but it's worth remembering that previous polls have shown widespread opposition to the abolition of the 50p rate. An ICM survey for the Guardian in March found that 67% of voters wanted to keep the top rate. More than any other single measure, it was the abolition of the 50p rate, juxtaposed with tax rises on pensioners, pasties, caravans, churches and charities, that retoxified the Tory brand.

Sixty two per cent of voters said Cameron should "tell people honestly whether he is personally benefitting from this". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.