PMQs review: Cameron's 50p tax problem hasn't gone away

The PM's decision to cut taxes for the highest earners left him vulnerable to Miliband's Reagan-style attack over living standards.

It was Ronald Reagan who Ed Miliband channelled at today's PMQs as he asked his own version of the US President's famous question to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debate: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" 

After today's Resolution Foundation report on "Squeezed Britain" warned that household incomes will not return to pre-recession levels until 2023, Miliband asked David Cameron: "At the end of the parliament, will living standards be higher or lower than they were at the beginning?" 

Understandably reluctant to reply "no", Cameron pointed to the action the coalition had taken to protect living standards, including the rise in the personal allowance and the council tax freeze. But Miliband swiftly countered that the biggest tax cut of all was for those earning over a million pounds a year, who would see their income tax bill fall by more than £100,000 from this April. What made the PM think that those earning £20,000 a week needed "extra help to keep the wolf from the door", he asked.

It was a reminder of why the decision to scrap the 50p rate tax was so politically disastrous for the Tories; it confirmed their status as the party of the rich and overshadowed the Budget's more popular measures. Cameron may contend that the 50p rate was a revenue loser for the Treasury but to most voters that sounds like an argument for cracking down on avoidance, not for cutting taxes. Later asked by Labour MP Stephen Pound whether he would personally benefit from the move, Cameron replied evasively that he would "pay his taxes". Expect Labour to take every opportunity to ask this question before the start of the new tax year on 6 April. 

But Cameron gained the upper hand when he turned his fire on Miliband. Referencing the "major speech" that the Labour leader will give on the economy tomorrow, he mockingly quoted reports that "it won’t have any new policies in it". Jon Cruddas had said that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good", the PM went on to note. "That is right, the whole frontbench opposite is no good." 

It was punchy stuff but Cameron's decision to cut the 50p rate, combined with the suspicion that he will benefit from the move, means he remains vulnerable on the subject of living standards. With this in mind, Tory MP Robert Halfon has imaginatively called for the reintroduction of the 10p rate, to prove that his party believes in "tax cuts for the many, not just for the few", while simultaneously reminding voters of a Labour error. 

So it was notable that Cameron remarked towards the end of the session, "we won't forget the abolition of the 10p tax rate". Was this is a hint of action to come in the Budget? Almost certainly not (the fiscally conservative Osborne wouldn't allow it), but it would be exactly the kind of "trump card" that Tory MPs have been urging the Chancellor to play. 

David Cameron waits outside Number 10 Downing Street in London on February 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.