Will anyone break the tax taboo?

The planned pace of cuts is unachievable. All parties need to talk about tax rises.

The new Resolution Foundation report on public spending (of which more on The Staggers later) is a reminder of the grim inheritance that awaits whichever party wins the 2015 election. Based on Osborne's current fiscal envelope, which Labour has said it will use as its "starting point",  the next government will have to increase the pace of cuts by 50% between 2016 and 2018 in order to meet the deficit target. Departmental spending will be reduced by an average of 3.8%, compared to 2.4% in 2010-15 and 2.7% in 2015-16. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme (which, based on recent form, is likely to be further extended to 2020), with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence. 

Tasked with delivering a Tory majority in 2015, Osborne has pushed the bulk of austerity into the years after the election. But as both the Resolution Foundation and the IFS now argue, the forecast cuts are implausible. At some point, if they are to eliminate the structural deficit (one that exists regardless of the level of output), which stood at 4% last year, our politicians will need to talk about tax rises. Even to maintain the current level of cuts (as opposed to a more aggressive pace), the next Chancellor will have to raise taxes by £10bn.

But, as in the past, both Labour and the Tories appear determined not to broach this subject. Osborne perpetuates the myth that as much as 80% of the remaining consolidation can be achieved through cuts, while Labour talks only of possibly reinstating the 50p rate and introducing a mansion tax (partly in order to fund the reinstatement of a 10p rate), which wouldn't even raise half of the £10bn required. 

In practice, both parties will almost certainly raise taxes on all earners immediately after the election (as new governments so often do), but will they have the decency to warn us in advance? During the 2010 election, David Cameron repeatedly stated that the Tories had "absolutely no plans to raise VAT".

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up taxes.

That first Budget, of course, saw VAT increased from 17.5% to a record high of 20%, a move Osborne and Cameron had been planning all along (you don't raises taxes by £12.5bn on a whim). 

If this insult to democracy is not to be repeated, the parties must avoid colluding in the conspiracy of silence that so often affects tax. It should not be beyond our political class to engage the public in a reasonable debate about how best to raise new revenue. A land value tax; aligning income tax and capital gains; a higher top rate; a penny on income tax; all of these options should be discussed. But if recent history is any guide, don't count on our politicians doing so. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.