Clegg at odds with Farron as he rejects calls to restore 50p tax rate

The Lib Dem leader could face defeat this afternoon after he argues against changing "one very specific symbolic tax rate" in opposition to the party president.

Alongside this morning's debate on whether to support "Osbornomics", the Lib Dem conference will vote later today on whether to back the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. While the main motion favours maintaining the current 45p rate, an amendment argues that the party should support the 50p rate, subject to a review concluding that the measure would raise more than it costs. Since the 50p rate, contrary to what some claim, raised £1bn in its first year (and would have raised more had George Osborne allowed it to operate for longer), the case for a Yes vote is a strong one. It would enable the Lib Dems to reclaim ownership of a policy they proposed long before Labour (abandoning it under Ming Campbell's leadership in 2006) and provide a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives.

When I interviewed Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, for the New Statesman last week, he told me: "My view is that we should have that [the 50p rate] in our manifesto and while it raises an amount of money, it’s also a really important statement that we are all in it together." Polling by Liberal Democrat Voice has shown that 90% of party members support the principle of a 50p rate.

But asked on the Today programme this morning whether he favoured the move, Clegg said: "To drive home the message of tax reform I think changing one very specific symbolic tax rate is not really the key part of the matter." He suggested, however, that he was relaxed about the prospect of defeat: "Of course if the party votes to take a decision, that’s one of the joys of the Liberal Democrats...we still retain this thing called democracy and I’m very proud of the fact that I’m, in a sense, just one voice among many and that this is decided democratically."

In arguing for the retention of the 45p rate, Clegg will be aided by Vince Cable, who is due to speak in the debate, which begins at 3:30pm. With the party's pre-eminent economic voice publicly supporting the motion, many will be less inclined to vote for the 50p rate. But the weight of opinion in favour of it means that this could still be the moment that the grassroots choose to deliver a bloody nose to the leadership.

Nick Clegg speaks during a rally at the Liberal Democrat conference at the SECC in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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