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 three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.