Balls keeps his options open on 50p tax

Shadow chancellor refuses to say whether he still wants the starting threshold lowered to £100,000.

There wasn't much that we hadn't heard before in Ed Balls's interview with Andrew Marr this morning. Labour's Keynesian pitbull deployed his usual attack lines against George Osborne, admitted that the Brown government didn't do enough to regulate the City and refused to concede that Labour overspent in the years leading up to the crash.

But one line caught my ear. Asked whether he still thought that the starting threshold for the 50p tax rate should be lowered from £150,000 to £100,000, Balls replied: "We've not sat down and discussed tax policy." In other words, he's still hoping to have the debate with Ed Miliband.

The Labour leader supports a permanent 50p rate, although Alan Johnson's presence saw a greater emphasis on merely retaining it "for this parliament", but he has never publicly supported reducing the threshold to £100,000.

One reason why it's worth watching Balls's statements on the 50p tax is that he is at one with public opinion on this subject. A Sunday Times/YouGov poll published today found that 33 per cent think the top rate should eventually be brought down, 49 per cent think it should be made permanent (the Miliband position) and 51 per cent would like to see the threshold brought down to £100,000, with 29 per cent opposed.

George Osborne's recent statement that the 50p rate is "temporary" (in contrast to the "permanent" VAT rise) suggests that he plans to offer significant cuts in direct taxation at the next election. After years of falling living standards, which taxes Labour and the Tories choose to keep and which they choose to cut will do much to determine the result in 2015.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage