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.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.