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.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

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