The problem with Clegg's tax cut plan: it won't help the poorest workers

With the personal allowance already at £10,000, the lowest-paid five million workers will not benefit from further increases.

There's little more than a month to go until the Budget (on 19 March), so it's time for Nick Clegg's annual appeal to George Osborne to increase the personal tax allowance. In a speech tonight at 6:10pm at Mansion House, he will say that he wants the threshold to be lifted from £10,000 (the level for 2014-15) to at least £10,500 by April 2015. Here's the key extract:

We want to keep cutting income tax for ordinary taxpayers. That will be the main item Danny and I push for in the Budget - again.

In the next parliament we would raise the personal allowance so that no one pays any income tax on the first £12,500 they earn. 

It’s our flagship policy because it’s how we make work pay, and it’s our way of making sure the British people know that this recovery is theirs.

In a smart piece of framing, Clegg is calling the policy a "workers' bonus", although workers who have seen their pay fall for years might reasonably grumble that a small tax cut hardly bears comparison with the pay packets enjoyed in the City of London. But while the move is undoubtedly good politics, and the best example of an area where the Lib Dems have genuinely set the agenda (in the first leaders' debate in 2010, David Cameron told Clegg: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it"), it is bad policy. 

At a time of falling living standards, raising the personal allowance will do nothing to help the five million lowest-paid workers who earn less than £10,000. It is those in the second-richest decile who gain the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth, who gain marginally less due to the gradual removal of the personal allowance after £100,000 (a brilliant piece of stealth redistribution by Alistair Darling). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least. 

Progressive alternatives to raising the income tax threshold include increasing the National Insurance (NI) threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, cutting VAT, which stands at a record 20 per cent and hits the poorest hardest, or raising in-work benefits such as tax credits. As the IFS noted last week, aligning the NI threshold with the personal allowance would "cut taxes for 1.2 million workers with earnings too low to benefit from an increase in the personal allowance, would benefit only workers, and would simplify the direct tax system." Alternatively, raising the level at which in-work benefits are withdrawn by 20 per cent would be "a bigger giveaway in entitlements to working families in the bottom three income deciles than the gains to that group of raising the personal allowance to £12,500, despite costing £10 billion per year less". 

But all of these measures lack the headline-grabbing potential of another cut in income tax. For similar reasons, rather than calling for an increase in the NI threshold, Labour is promising to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, a measure that would do even less to benefit the poorest but that offers a useful means of distancing the party from one of Gordon Brown's greatest blunders. All of which is a reminder that when it comes to tax, there are few areas where the triumph of politics over policy is greater. 

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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