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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump