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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.