Don't fall for the Tories' spin over the 45p rate

Why the increase in tax revenues doesn't prove that the coalition was right to scrap the 50p rate.

The Treasury is busy spinning the latest income tax receipt figures as proof that it was right to abolish the 50p rate. Last month the new top rate of 45p raised £11.5bn, £1.3bn more than its predecessor. So, has Art Laffer (of the eponymous "curve") been vindicated? Do lower rates, as the right has long claimed, produce higher revenues? Not quite. The spike in tax receipts is most likely due to the income shifted from last year to this year in order to benefit from the lower rate. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes: "Receipts in April will have been boosted by high income individuals shifting income such as bonuses and special dividends from 2012–13 to 2013–14 in anticipation of the fall in the top rate of income tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent". 

This, of course, is a trick the rich can only play once (unless the rate is reduced again), just as, in the opposite direction, they shifted £16bn into the previous tax year when the rate was still 40p (the real reason that the 50p rate raised less than forecast, although a £1bn isn't to be sniffed at). There was never a "normal" year of the 50p rate. This, of course, was precisely Osborne's intention. Having falsely claimed that the (anomalous) first year of the 50p rate proved that it was ineffective, he will now use the (anomalous) first year of the 45p rate to argue that he was right to scrap it. How much would the 50p rate have raised? We'll never know; Osborne cancelled the experiment at birth. 

The 45p rate may well raise more in the months ahead but we'll have no means of detaching this from any concurrent increase in growth. But don't expect that to stop Osborne declaring victory in the 2014 Budget.

George Osborne arrives to attend a press conference at the conclusion of the IMF UK mission. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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