PMQs sketch: Large without Little

Cameron without Clegg

In 20 days time MPs, just back from their Whitsun break, will pack in work for the summer and take two months off. Yesterday many of them appeared to be in training.

The benches are normally packed for the weekly bun-fight which masquerades as Prime Ministers Questions, but political ennui if not men's quarter-finals dayat Wimbledon -- and you know how bad the traffic can be there -- appeared to have set in. (And then of course there are the strikes).

Even before it began, the whispers went up about the most notable absentee: "Where is he", was being mouthed as fingers pointed towards the Government front bench.

It was Large without Little for here was Dave without Nick. We knew they hadn't been getting on and they had said they would send time apart, but seeing it in reality was a shocker.

Where Nick normally sat slumped despondently in his seat, sallow-faced waiting for his weekly diet of insults from all sides of the house, including his own, now sat a vision in pink -- the Secretary of State for Wales.

In fact, as you looked down the Government benches you saw it as Dave had hoped it would be last May -- just Tories in sight. Even Ken Clarke, still on parole for his continued indiscretions, lounged expansively and awake just out of distance from the Prime Minister. If you stared into the murk you could make out the ghostly figures of Cable and Huhne edging their way towards the exit.

Nick, we discovered later, had been sent to Birmingham -- which in these cost-conscious days must be a little bit closer than Coventry .

But if Nick is no longer reliable at least Dave knows that his real BF George, aka the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will always be there. And so it was today.

The Prime Minister has had such a hard time at PMQs in recent weeks at the hands of Labour leader, Ed Miliband, that George positions himself as if prepared to rugby tackle Dave if he tries to do a runner.

Ed has developed a neat technique of swotting up on some of the more mathematical details of Government policies and demanding the haples PM answer them. This technique of course goes against the historical grain of PMQs when questions could be safely ignored and answers given to things you had not asked about. After all, it's not called Prime Ministers Answers.

Ed has managed to bring out the bully in Dave through this approach, causing concern on the Tory side at the ease with which their leader can be wound up. To this end George is stationed by his side to provide comfort, backbone, and pass on any facts he manages to pick up from his Cabinet chums in the brief periods of respite from Ed's attempts to poke his eye out.

And so the stage was set yesterday for another mauling and Dave looked out of sorts even before Ed got to his feet..... but then it all went a bit wrong, maybe this time for Ed.

With 750,000 voters due out on strike tomorrow Dave knew he was in for a hard time and decided to kick off PMQs with a restatement of his "no need for strikes" position, which met with ritual baying from his side of the house.

Ed shot to his feet and straight into a detailed question of redundancies in the National Health Service. Dave stumbled and flapped, George tightened his grip and Ed was at him again about detail and the NHS.

The "crimson tide", as Labour calls Dave 's rapid colour change above the collar, was clearly in evidence as the Prime Minister had no worthwhile reply to this forensic examination.

But even as he flustered, a sudden light came on: Ed was not going to mention the strikes, and Dave was off the hook.

All week Ed has been polishing up his "squeezed middle" credentials saying the strikes should not go ahead. He re-enforced the message with his own Clause Four moment, or at least Clause Four hint, by talking up cutting back union power in the Party

But biting off the hand that feeds you is one thing, but being seen to enjoy it is another entirely -- and so with real deal less than 24 hours away he decided to gamble on having said enough for now. He hopes voters will remember he was against the strike, but the strikers remember he wasn't as against it as Dave.

So to the obvious pleasure of the Government benches, and the equally obvious confusion of his own side, he decided to keep schtum.

"What the whole country will have noticed is, that at a time when people are worrying about strikes, he can't ask about strikes because he is in the pocket of the trade unions," said the PM, with all the pleasure of someone who has just found a gift horse opposite him with its mouth wide open.

There is a by-election tomorrow in the Inverclyde constituency in Scotland where Labour is defending at 14,000 majority -- repeat, 14,000 majority.

Friday should be interesting.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust