Will Cameron and Osborne remain silent over Goldman Sachs's tax ploy?

Having denounced "aggressive tax avoidance", Osborne is under pressure to respond to the bank's plan to avoid the 50p rate tax by delaying bonus payments.

Update: It appears that the adverse publicity has prompted a rethink at Goldman. The bank has dropped plans to delay bonus payments and, consequently, will pay the 50p rate. Before the announcement, the Treasury said simply: "We do not comment on the tax affairs of individual companies, but we are clear that everyone must pay the tax they owe."

As Alex reported yesterday, mega-bank Goldman Sachs is considering deferring bonus payments for its UK employees until April in order to benefit from the reduction of the 50p tax rate to 45p. The proposed tax dodge has already drawn criticism from Labour, with shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie declaring that "banks need to think carefully about their own reputations if they seek to avoid tax in this way" and the redoubtable Margaret Hodge accusing Goldmans of not giving "a toss about collective responsibility".

This morning, Bank of England governor Mervyn King added his voice to the protests. During his appearance before the Treasury select committee, he commented:

I find it a bit depressing that people who earn so much find it would be even more exciting to adjust their payouts to benefit from the tax rate, knowing that this must have an impact of the rest of society, which is suffering most from the consequences of the financial crisis. I think it would be a rather clumsy and lacking in care and attention to how other people might react. And in the long run, financial institutions do depend on goodwill from society.

King's intervention prompts the question of whether David Cameron and George Osborne will have anything to say about the matter. In last year's Budget, Osborne memorably denounced "aggressive tax avoidance" as "morally repugnant". And if Cameron is prepared to take the time to attack Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance, one might expect him to comment when one of the world's largest investment banks deploys similar chicanery. The numbers involved are not insignificant. Goldman paid out £8bn in bonuses last year and a similar stunt by the bank and others in 2010 (when they brought forward income in order to avoid the rise from 40p to 50p) cost the Treasury £16bn.

Labour is keen to take every opportunity to remind the public that the government is choosing to cut taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners this April. With the additional chance to protest at "aggressive tax avoidance", don't be surprised if Ed Miliband raises this issue at PMQs tomorrow.

Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.