Budget 2012: the tax battlegrounds

It's the most exciting period of the year (for accountants): The run-up to the budget. But what's in

 

1. Mansion Tax

What is being proposed?

An annual tax of one per cent on properties worth over £2m, applicable to value of property over that figure.

Who is behind it?

Business secretary Vince Cable.

Will it work?

The devil is in the details. The central idea is to move some of the tax burden from income to wealth. So far, so good. Unfortunately, using property value as a proxy for wealth is open to abuse, difficult to administer and will lead to some strange quirks in who does, and doesn't, pay.

The tax will hit almost exclusively the older rich, writes Chris Dillow -- those who already own houses worth over the £2m threshold. Not only will they have to pay the tax, but they will very quickly see a deprecation in the value of their houses as the tax is priced in to the sale price. Who benefits from this?

"The younger, slightly less rich -- those who might well already own houses in the £1-2 million bracket."

The administration of the tax will require a massive investment by the government to put together a database of house values (Sale prices can't be used, for obvious reasons), or piggybacking on the information already gathered for council tax -- which would have been easier before Eric Pickles sabotaged the data. Simulating the tax by adding new bands to council tax would be a possibility -- but would move the burden of payment from landlords to renters.

Will it in be in the Budget?

The tax is the most popular of the possible replacements for the 50p tax (see below), but it is very much a Liberal Democrat desire, even though Nick Clegg appears to have cooled on the idea, and it is burdened with some seemingly-intractable problems standing between it and implementation. The Chancellor is said to be dead against the idea.

2. Tycoon Tax

What is being proposed?

A British equivalent of the American "alternative minimum tax", ensuring that the wealthiest Brits pay overall tax rates of at least 20 per cent - the same as the basic income tax rate.

Who is behind it?

Nick Clegg, attempting to outflank Cable's mansion tax.

Will it work?

No. The alternative minimum tax, the last attempt to pass this sort of rule in the US, is itself the subject of reform, and failed to stop Mitt Romney paying a total tax rate of 13.5 per cent. Discovering this fact was, apparently, Nick Clegg's motivation for introducing the idea in the first place.

Richard Murphy has a handy checklist of reasons to doubt the tycoon tax could work, of which the strongest is the same problem facing the US: capital gains tax. While that and the dividend rate are less than income tax, a great number of the wealthiest in society will be paying miniscule proportions of their income. Yet the aim of capital gains tax, to encourage investment, remains something we greatly desire. Until that contradiction is ironed out, the tycoon tax is going nowhere.

Will it be in the Budget?

Maybe. Although Nick Clegg appeared to have backtracked, using his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference to promise to “call time on the tycoon tax dodgers” without actually calling for a new tax, new reports this morning suggest that the Chancellor is giving the idea serious consideration, since he prefers it to the mansion tax.

3. Raising the tax threshold

What is being proposed?

Speeding up the rate at which the tax threshold (the level below which income tax is not payable) is raised, ensuring that it hits the target of £10,000 before the current deadline of 2015.

Who is behind it?

As a Lib Dem manifesto pledge, it has support from most senior Lib Dems, who see it as a chance to finally put the party's stamp on some progressive policy. Raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015 is in the coalition agreement -- but then again, so are a lot of things.

Will it work?

If the aim is to help the worst off in society most, then it seems unlikely that it will be able to achieve that goal. The IFS analysis shows who the biggest winners are:

IFS income ratio

 

This chart shows the effect of the £10,000 tax threshold when the unit of analysis is the family, rather than the individual. As the IFS says, "We would expect at least some degree of income sharing within families."

In addition, the raised threshold isn't a particularly good fiscal stimulus. The IFS write that effective stimulus needs to be "timely, targeted and temporary", and raising the threshold is none of those. As a result, it seems unlikely that it would provide much of a boost to the economy.

The policy is a very expensive commitment, and if the Lib Dems can't easily win the argument as to whether or not it is progressive, they may think twice about pushing it too hard. The staggered introduction -- the threshold will already be £1500 higher in 2012/13 than it was in 2010/11 -- also means that they don't have nearly as much public support as they would have hoped, since voters haven't noticed any sizeable change in their tax bill.

Will it be in the Budget?

The ball is largely in the Liberal Democrats' court for this one. If they keep pushing, the tax threshold will keep rising, but if they decide the money would be better off spent elsewhere, then there's no-one to argue with them. If they go the other way, and try to get the whole of the £10,000 threshold introduced in one go, there will be considerable opposition from the Conservatives, who have their own pet projects to spend the money on.

4. Scrapping the 50p tax

What is being proposed?

Getting rid of the 50p tax rate, currently levied on income over £150,000.

Who is behind it?

The Tory right, but the pre-budget horse-trading has secured the support of Lib Dems provided it is replaced by another tax on the rich -- most probably the mansion tax -- rather than being scrapped outright

Will it work?

The problem the opponents of the 50p tax have is that it has its second birthday next month, and the sky has not yet fallen on their heads. The first revenue figures are dripping in, showing a "surge" of hundreds of millions of pounds, and there is no evidence of any widespread flight to low-tax nations either. In the 2011 budget, there was a chance the Chancellor could confidently state that the downside simply hadn't started yet; this year, that claim will be harder to make.

Then again, the reasons for keeping the 50p rate have never been entirely down to revenue. As Fraser Nelson, who is confident the tax will end up damaging income, wrote:

It's not just that the Tory leadership are nervous about being teased for their own backgrounds. It's that they believe there is no choice but to assuage the eat-the-rich mood in the country. The argument for 50p is political, not economic.

For this reason, it is hard to work out what the desired result from scrapping the rate is. It will definitely result in the richest Britons getting richer; it will almost certainly result in a lower tax take; and with the "eat-the-rich" mood showing no signs of abating, it's not going to be a vote winner either.

Will it be in the Budget?

This is the big one. Almost every other proposal has been priced against the 50p tax, either to fill in the gap left by its abolition, or to show how much more effective it would be. There is a widespread understanding that if Osborne can find a replacement which ticks all the boxes, he would love to be done with it. Yet there doesn't seem to be that easy replacement on the horizon.

5. Changing pension taxation

What is being proposed?

A raft of measures, from exempting the state pension from the income tax, to ending tax relief on private pension contributions from top-rate taxpayers.

Who is behind it?

The independent government body the Office for Tax Simplification, the Centre for Policy Studies, and "senior Liberal Democrats".

Will it work?

Taken as a bundle, the measures pay for themselves. In addition, they form a broadly progressive change, moving some of the burden of taxation to top-rate taxpayers from those who rely solely on the basic state pension. The biggest concern is that doing so will introduce some element of double taxation; not an intractable problem, as Richard Murphy explains, but potentially unpopular nonetheless.

Will it be in the Budget?

Some big guns are in support, and there is little heavy opposition, but a change funded entirely on the back of top-rate taxpayers may have trouble getting through the doors of number 11.

6. Corporation tax

What is being proposed?

A long term plan to take Britain's corporation tax rate down to 20 per cent. (£) Britain's corporation tax rate currently stands at 25 per cent, and the Chancellor has already pledged to reduce it to 23 per cent over the course of this parliament.

Who is behind it?

The Chancellor himself.

Will it work?

It is unlikely to do a great deal to lure businesses over to the UK; any that choose their headquarters based on the tax rate still have a wealth of options to pick from, including Ireland (with a rate of 12.5 per cent), Liechtenstein (12.5 per cent) or the Isle of Man (0 per cent). It will make us competitive with Luxembourg, which has a rate of 20 per cent, and increase our lead over America (35 per cent), France (33.3 per cent) and Germany (15 per cent, "but additional social taxes mean an effective rate of more than 30 per cent" according to the Sunday Times).

Those leads have stood for quite some time, however. Before Osborne became Chancellor, corporation tax stood at 28 per cent, and yet there was no flood of companies moving headquarters across the Atlantic to take advantage of our low rates. It seems unlikely that much will change with a further cut.

Will it be in the Budget?

It has the Chancellor behind it, no opposition, and is being pre-briefed to the Sunday Times. It may as well be law already.

 
Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear