Osborne's new dividing line: a 0% tax rate against a 10p tax rate

The Chancellor appears to rule out a 10p tax rate for the Budget and says raising the personal allowance is "a better policy".

Ed Miliband's pledge to reintroduce the 10p tax rate has left the Tories with a dilemma. Having previously hinted that they might adopt the measure, which was first proposed by a Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, do they seek to match Miliband's offer or do they reject it? 

It now looks as if George Osborne has settled on the latter option. In his interview on ITV's The Agenda last night, the Chancellor declared that the coalition had "a better policy" - "a zero per cent tax rate". He pointed out that the increase in the tax-free personal allowance from £6,475 in 2010 to £9,440 (from this April) had already compensated all of those who lost out from Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10p tax rate, adding: "We've taken a million people out of tax altogether so I would say a zero per cent tax rate is going to be a little bit more attractive at an election than a 10% tax rate and that's certainly been our priority."

Coming from the man who remains the Conservatives' chief election strategist, it was a significant statement. The Lib Dems have long made it clear that they will go into the next election promising to raise the personal allowance to £12,500, so that no one on the minimum wage pays any income tax. Osborne's words suggest that the Tories are now more likely to match this offer than are they to cut the starting rate.

It's not an approach that will please all Tory MPs. Halfon is fond of quoting former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson, who began his time at the Treasury by raising personal allowances but later reversed direction. He later explained: "I wished to create a large constituency in favour of income-tax reductions. The last thing I wanted to do was to reduce the size of that constituency by taking people out of tax altogether." But the imperative for the Tories to differentiate themselves from Labour now trumps this concern. 

With two years of the parliament remaining, the tax threshold is just £560 from the coalition's target of £10,000 after a larger-than-expected increase in the Autumn Statement. If Osborne chooses to pull a rabbit out of the hat on Budget day (as he usually does), one wonders if it will be to meet this pledge ahead of schedule. Having unambiguously rejected a mansion tax and now cast scorn on the 10p tax rate, the Chancellor has shown that he has no intention of dancing to Labour's tune. 

Chancellor George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on January 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.