George Osborne knows better than most how tax pledges can wrong-foot a government. It was his promise at the 2007 Conservative conference to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m, funded by an annual levy of £25,000 on non-domiciled taxpayers, that spooked Gordon Brown into calling off an early election and earned Osborne his reputation as his party’s sharpest political brain. Labour MPs still wince at the memory of the subsequent “magpie Budget” in which Alistair Darling, under orders from Brown, sought to mimic Osborne’s proposals.
Five and a half years later, it is the Tories who have been blindsided by Labour’s version of Osborne’s gambit. Like the shadow chancellor in 2007, Ed Miliband twinned a popular tax cut (a 10p rate of income tax) with a popular tax rise (a “mansion tax”) and positioned himself on the side of the middle classes. In the Labour camp, there is satisfaction at how the speech has succeeded in defining the pre-Budget terms of debate. It is a sign of Miliband’s enhanced stature that his proposals are now being discussed on the assumption that there is a good chance of them becoming law. The tax pledge has reassured those MPs previously troubled by the party’s lack of emblematic policies. As one frontbencher told me, “It passes the doorstep test.”
It was the Conservative MP Robert Halfon who originally proposed a reintroduced 10p tax rate as an artful piece of Tory detoxification. When I met him in his Commons office the day before Miliband’s speech, he lamented how Labour’s “brilliant” campaign against the abolition of the 50p tax rate had defined the Tories as “a party only interested in cutting taxes for millionaires”. Polling shows that just 9 per cent of the public believe the Conservatives best represent the interests of low-paid public-sector workers, while just 14 per cent believe they best represent their private-sector counterparts. By bringing back the 10p rate on income above the personal allowance and by funding it through the revenue generated by the 45p rate, Halfon argued that the Conservatives could prove that they believed in “tax cuts for the many, not just the few”.
The proposal won the support of key Osborne allies, including his former chief of staff Matthew Hancock, and was earmarked by the Treasury for inclusion in the 2014 Budget. Yet following Miliband’s deft act of political plagiarism, it is now off the table. Unlike Brown in 2007, Osborne has no intention of dancing to the opposition’s tune. Instead, he has sought to give the coalition’s policy of raising the personal allowance a harder edge by branding it as a “zero per cent tax rate”. This, he said, would be “more attractive at an election than a 10 per cent tax rate”. Rather than introducing a new tax band – a measure that would sit uneasily with his commitment to a simplified tax system – Osborne is more likely to seek to increase the personal allowance beyond the original target of £10,000.
A far greater problem than the loss of the 10p tax rate is the coalescing of Labour and the Liberal Democrats around a mansion tax. Of the three main parties, only the Tories now believe that a family in a three-bedroom house in Tower Hamlets should pay the same rate of property tax as an oligarch in a Kensington palace. Those voters who select what James O’Shaughnessy, David Cameron’s former director of policy, calls the “dreaded posh family in front of a mansion” when asked to choose the picture that best represents the Tories have had all their prejudices confirmed.
The irony is that it was Osborne – who is now leading the charge against a new property tax – who agreed to introduce two higher council tax bands on houses worth more than £1m ahead of last year’s Autumn Statement before being overruled by Cameron. It later emerged that the Tories had surreptitiously written to their wealthy donors soliciting funds to campaign against a “homes tax”, a fact that Miliband gleefully cites as proof that the Prime Minister “stands up for the wrong people”. The Labour leader intends to increase the Tories’ discomfort by using an opposition day debate to force a Commons vote on a mansion tax. In order to maximise the chances of support from Nick Clegg’s party, the motion is not expected to include a reference to the 10p tax rate.
As Miliband hoped, his appropriation of the measure has already forced the Lib Dems into even more aggressive differentiation. Clegg accuses his coalition partners of “turning a blind eye to the super-wealthy” and of defending the interests of “people in very large mansions”. For Labour, such interventions have a dual purpose; they retoxify the Conservative brand while reinforcing the impression of the Lib Dems as the helpless hostages of a Tory clique.
Ever since the Thatcher era, British politics has been governed by the belief that the left won the culture war and the right won the economic war. Yet increasingly it feels as if the reverse is now the case. The left is winning the debate on the need for greater financial regulation and taxation of the wealthy, while the right is winning the debate on the need for a new social conservatism to heal Britain’s “broken society”. In their opposition to a mansion tax, the Tories have positioned themselves on the wrong side of this divide. Until they do otherwise, that picture of the “dreaded posh family” will continue to define them.