Clegg aids Labour's tax attack on the Tories

The Deputy PM went further than before and accused his coalition partners of turning "a blind eye to the super wealthy" by opposing a mansion tax.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have never sought to hide their differences over a mansion tax. But Nick Clegg went further than ever last night when he accused his coalition partners of "turning a blind eye to the super wealthy". He told ITV News

The Conservatives need to speak for themselves. I for the life of me don't understand why the Conservatives think it's ok that an oligarch can buy a palace in Regent's Park for tens of millions of pounds and pay the same council tax as a three-bedroom family house in Lewisham.

That is just unfair. We can't keep turning a blind eye to the super wealthy basically being taxed the same way on their properties as hard working families across the country.

Clegg's words prompt the question of whether the Lib Dems will line up with Labour if and when Ed Miliband succeeds in forcing a Commons vote on a mansion tax. Vince Cable has suggested that his party will vote in favour of the opposition motion provided that it is not tied to the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate (which the Lib Dems oppose) and Clegg similarly indicated that it would depend on the wording. 

Neither Vince nor I know what will be put before us so we can't of course determine in advance how we would vote.

But of course the Liberal Democrats for a long time have been the leading advocate of greater fairness in tax.

I've been told by a Labour source that the motion will not include a commitment to introduce a 10p tax band in order to maximise the chances of support from the Lib Dems. The party sees the vote as a chance to show how the Tories are on the wrong side of the new tax divide in British politics. Miliband believes that the Conservatives' decision to write privately to their donors soliciting funds to combat a "homes tax" leaves them particularly vulnerable to the charge that they are the party of the rich. 

The irony is that before the last Budget, George Osborne, the man now leading the charge against the tax, considered introducting two or three new higher council tax bands on houses worth more than £1m, a measure that the Lib Dems could have presented as a mansion tax. But this option was ruled out after David Cameron's shire Tory instincts asserted themselves and the PM personally vetoed the proposal. With the Tories now having ruled out anything resembling a mansion tax, the Lib Dems see no reason to go easy on their coalition partners.  

Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.