The child benefit tax could be a disaster for the coalition

More than 300,000 households have not been informed that they must either stop claiming child benefit or pay a new tax.

2013 will be a year of dramatic changes to the welfare system: the introduction of the benefit cap, the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and, most notably, the national rollout of Universal Credit. But the first test for the government will come next Monday when the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners begins. From 7 January, payments will be tapered away from individuals earning over £50,000 and completely withdrawn at £60,000 (however, a household with two earners each on £50,000 will keep the benefit in full). Those households affected will either need to stop claiming the benefit or pay a new tax (known as the High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge) to cover the cost of the payments. Families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed)

With the changes announced as long ago as the 2010 Conservative conference, the government has had no shortage of time in which to inform those who will lose out. But as today's Telegraph reports, almost a third of the families affected have still not been formally warned that they will no longer be eligible for all or part of the benefit. Of the 1.1 million households due to be affected by the change, 316,000 have not yet been contacted by the tax authorities. As a result, having missed the opportunity to opt out of the new system (as 160,000 have done), they will have to fill in self-assessment forms or face fines running into hundreds of pounds.

A spokesman for HMRC insists that "extensive advertising, media and online activity" means those affected will know about the changes. However, it's not hard to imagine that some families will get a nasty surprise when they discover that they owe hundreds of pounds in additional tax.

But then the Conservatives have long appeared complacent over the policy. Last year, in a bid to assuage Tory MPs fearful that the party could be heading for a 10p tax moment, George Osborne released private polling showing that 82 per cent of people favour the plan, with just 13 per cent opposed. But as I've argued before, more important than the question of how many oppose the policy, is the intensity of their opposition. If even a small chunk of the 13 per cent opposed to the move vote against the Tories in protest at the next election, the party will suffer significant losses. And those who lose out certainly won't be feeling charitable if the government hasn't had the courtesy to inform them of as much.

George Osborne announced the coalition's plan to remove child benefit from higher earners at the 2010 Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide