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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Ignoring devolved nations on Brexit "risks breaking up the UK"

Theresa May is meeting with Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh representatives. 

The Westminster government risks the break up of the union if it tries to impose a Brexit settlement on Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the Institute for Government has warned.

On the day Theresa May is meeting with representatives from the devolved administrations, the thinktank said there were "worrying signs" the Tories were ignoring them instead of treating them like partners. 

The Institute urged the UK government to take steps to prevent "political spats from escalating into a full-blow constitutional crisis".

It stated:

"Imposing a Brexit settlement in the absence of consent from the devolved bodies may be legally possible, given that the UK Parliament remains sovereign. 

"However, this would run contrary to convention and to the spirit of devolution, which recognises the right of the three devolved nations to determine their own
form of government. 

"It would also be a reckless strategy for a government committed to the Union, since it would seriously undermine relationships between the four governments, and increase the chances of Scottish independence and rifts in Northern Ireland’s fragile power-sharing arrangements."

Instead, Brexit ministers from the devolved nations should be represented on a specially-created committee and held jointly responsible for the outcome of talks, it recommended. The devolved nations are expected to want a softer Brexit than the one outlined so far by Westminster. 

It noted that despite the Prime Minister's commitment to developing a "UK approach" to Brexit, there are "worrying signs" that the devolved governments are being ignored.

So far key decisions, such as the deadline for triggering Article 50, have been taken by Westminster alone. Legal experts have warned a stand off between devolved authorities and Westminster could lead to a constitutional crisis.

While civil servants across the UK are now trying to work together, the Institute for Government said their ability to do so "has been hindered by lack of agreement at a political level".

A Brexit settlement could also lead to new powers for the devolved nations, the report said, such as on employment and immigration.

The report said it was likely devolved parliaments would wish to vote on any settlement.

The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has already threatened to hold another independence referendum if Westminster does not take account of Scottish interests, and has pledged that the SNP will vote against the Brexit bill in Parliament. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.