Tory MPs divided over tax cuts after Miliband's 10p tax pledge

Conservative MP Graham Brady demands the abolition of Air Passenger Duty but Robert Halfon tells the New Statesman it would be the wrong move.

After Ed Miliband's audacious pledge to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, funded by a mansion tax on houses worth more than £2m, George Osborne is under even greater pressure from Conservative MPs to play a "trump card" when he delivers the Budget on 20 March. There's frustration among the Tories that the 10p tax rate, a measure championed by a Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, was taken up by Labour before Halfon's own party. If he wants to avoid a backlash, the Chancellor now has no choice but to announce significant tax cuts when he steps up to the despatch box next month. 

In an article for today's Daily Telegraph, Graham Brady (profiled by Caroline earlier this year), the chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, wastes no time in setting out hs Budget wishlist. While praising the Chancellor's cuts to corporation tax (which has been reduced from 28 per cent to 23 per cent and will fall again to 21 per cent next year), he urges him to "go further". 

Brady's principal demand is for Osborne to abolish Air Passenger Duty - "the highest aviation tax in the world" - which the Chancellor increased by eight per cent in last year's Budget. He points to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers which found that scrapping the tax would deliver an immediate economic boost of 0.5 per cent of GDP. This, Brady pointedly notes, is "not to be sneezed at in these days of anaemic growth." 

But when I spoke to Robert Halfon earlier this week (undoubtedly now the most influential backbench MP), he told me that cutting Air Passenger Duty would be the wrong move. "In times like this, flying is a luxury, it's not something you have to do" he said. "It's [reducing Air Passenger Duty] not the best way to help low-earners".

Having criticised Labour's 10p tax proposal on the grounds that it would only mean an extra £34 a year for a family (once benefit withdrawal is taken into account), Halfon is still pushing for Osborne to adopt his policy in full: a reintroduced 10p rate on earnings between £9,440 and £12,000 (Miliband's proposal would only apply to the first £1,000 of earnings over the personal allowance).

But with Osborne having unambiguously ruled out the introduction of a "mansion tax" ("this party of home ownership will have no truck with it," he said in his Conservative conference speech), the question remains how the Chancellor would pay for a 10p rate. Halfon has proposed funding the measure by  ring-fencing the extra revenue from the 45p rate (on the assumption that a lower top rate of tax will benefit growth). But with growth likely to remain anaemic or non-existent, Osborne will have little room for manoeuvre, not least because he has already promised to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 by the end of this parliament. Whether or not Tory MPs secure the tax cuts they wish to see may yet depend on whether the Chancellor, a fiscal conservative to his core, is finally willing to tolerate a higher deficit. 

George Osborne is under pressure to deliver tax cuts in the Budget after Ed Miliband pledged to reintroduce the 10p income tax rate. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide