The welfare cuts that the 50p tax rate could have prevented

George Osborne abolished the top rate of tax after it "only" raised £1bn - but which welfare cuts could have been avoided for that amount?

George Osborne's stated justification for abolishing the 50p income tax rate was that, due to mass avoidance, it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Even by Osborne's standards, this was a peculiarly unconvincing argument. It's true that £16bn of income was shifted into the previous tax year  - when the rate was still 40p - but this was a trick the rich could only have played once. Moreover, as the government has acknowledged in other instances, tax avoidance isn't an argument for cutting tax, it's an argument for limiting avoidance. 

But leave this aside. The fact remains that, as Osborne conceded, the 50p rate raised £1bn (and had the potential to raise far more). Not a transformative amount, to be sure (the deficit is forecast to be £120.9bn this year), but hardly to be sniffed at. Indeed, it's precisely this argument that the government makes when justifying "tough" measures such as the "bedroom tax" (which it is hoped will save £465m a year): every little helps. 

Osborne claims that the reduction in the top rate to 45p will cost the government just £100m but, once again, this is based on an anomalous year's data. Having brought forward their income in order to avoid the 50p rate in its first year, the rich have now delayed it in order to benefit from the reduction to 45p (again, a trick they can only play once) this year. The reality is that the cost of scrapping the rate is likely to be far higher, with up to £3bn in revenue forsaken. But as I show below, even if we accept the anomalous figure of £1bn, a significant number of the welfare cuts introduced by the government could have been avoided if the 50p rate had remained in place. 

The "bedroom tax"

The measure, which will see housing benefit cut by 14 per cent for those social housing tenants deemed to have one spare room and by 25 per cent for those with two or more, is forecast to save £480m - less than half of the yield from the 50p rate. 

It will cost 660,000 tenants an average of £14 a week or £728 a year. Exemptions have been introduced for 5,000 foster carers, some armed forces families and families with severely disabled children - but not families with a severely disabled adult

Estimated saving: £465m a year.

And

Council tax support cut by 10 per cent

The retention of the 50p rate could also have paid for the reversal of the 10 per cent cut in council tax support, which is forecast to save up to £480m a year. The measure will cost 1.9 million families who do not currently pay council tax an average of £140 a year. In addition, 150,000 low income families will pay on average £300 more a year.

I've written about the policy in greater detail here (Will this be the coalition's poll tax moment?).

Estimated saving: £480m a year. 

Or

Legal aid cuts

Alternatively, the 50p rate could have prevented the lowering of the cut-off point for legal aid to a household income of £32,000 and the introduction of a means-test for those earning between £14,000 and £32,000. 

Estimated saving: £350m.

Or

1% cap on benefit increases

Around half of the revenue raised by the 50p rate in its first year could have allowed the government to uprate benefits in line with inflation (which stood at 2.2 per cent in September 2012, the month traditionally used to calculate benefit increases), rather than by just 1 per cent. 

Estimated saving: £505m in 2013-14.

George Osborne scrapped the 50p tax rate in his 2012 Budget after it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.