Budget 2012: 20 minutes in, 1-0 Team Clegg

The Lib Dems are right to identify higher rate pension tax relief as ripe for review.

It may still be early February but the March Budget has already kicked off. This morning's Telegraph splashes with Danny Alexander's first attacking move, with the Chief Secretary saying he strongly supports a reduction in higher rate pension tax relief to fund further increases in the personal allowance. For all the Lib Dem's previous talk of mansion taxes and crackdowns on tax evasion, this is serious stuff. Alexander claims the government could save £7 billion by reducing the 40p tax relief currently given to higher rate tax payers to 20p, the first cash on the table that would come close to funding his party's ambition on the £10k allowance.

If there's one thing Alexander's intervention confirms it's this: the key question for the 2012 Budget is no longer whether the Lib Dems will get anything on personal allowances but how the next increase will be paid for. This marks a big change of tactics for Clegg's team from previous budgets. They've come hard out of the blocks in a very public way and not just to argue for the allowance move itself -- easy words, after all -- but putting a big money, progressive, revenue-raising measure front and centre.

It's a shift of strategy that was marked first by Nick Clegg's speech to the Resolution Foundation in late January when the message was more coded but the intention no less clear: “I want to help the hard-pressed and the hardworking. If that means asking more from those at the top - so be it."

And, make no mistake, for those on low or modest pay, it's a change in emphasis -- if it pays off -- that could be hugely important. As Gavin Kelly has argued before in the New Statesman, the coalition has shown a deeply worrying instinct in recent months to make deep raids into tax credits as their default way of funding their wider ambitions. It is now clear that Clegg's team realise their previous strategy -- in which they win the offensive for a higher allowance but fail to defend areas of spend that are absolutely essential for low to middle income households -- has become utterly unsustainable. These earlier failures will sadly still bite low to middle income households hard when substantial tax credit cuts bite this April. But at least if the Lib Dem's new approach works, things might not get worse.

So all in all, 20 minutes in to Budget 2012, it's probably fair to scratch up 1-0 to Team Clegg. They've come out early and marked their territory well. And in higher rate pension tax relief they've identified an area of public spend that there's long been a good case for reviewing. Ultimately, of course, if a week's a long time in politics, six weeks is an aeon in budget negotiations. Staking your claim early is bold but it's also risky. The key question now is whether the Lib Dems can hold on for the win. One thing's for sure: with their funding ambitions now out in the open for all to see, any further cuts to tax credits in March would be a stinging humiliation.

James Plunkett leads the Resolution Foundation's Commission on Living standards.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.