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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder