Why Danny Alexander's promise to keep the 45p tax rate can't be trusted

The Lib Dems says the top tax rate will be cut "over my dead body". But he said the same about the 50p rate in 2011.

Danny Alexander's decision last week to attack Labour's "borrowing bombshell" (a conspicuous echo of Conservative rhetoric) and to outline coalition spending totals until 2020-21 went down predictably badly with the Lib Dem left. Just three days before his intervention, Vince Cable had emphasised that his party was not bound to George Osborne's post-2015 deficit reduction timetable: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." But Alexander's willingness to join the Chancellor in a united front against Ed Balls appeared to confirmed the long-held suspicion that he has gone "native" at the Treasury (the joke runs that the Lib Dem man in the Treasury has become the Treasury man in the Lib Dems). 

In response, Prateek Buch, the co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum (and a Staggers contributor), said: "Cuts on the scale planned by Osborne just cannot be delivered. So why should Lib Dems endorse the Chancellor’s straitjacket? It is beyond me why Danny would sign up to what appears to be joint Lib Dem/Tory spending plans going beyond the end of the next parliament, when no such figures have been agreed by his own party. It is unhelpful to pre-empt the party’s manifesto process in this way. Besides, the plans take no account of the need to invest, or what will happen to GDP. What happened to differentiating ourselves from the Tories?"

Perhaps unsettled by this criticism, today finds Alexander seeking to put some clear yellow water between himself and his coalition partners. He tells the Daily Mirror that a cut in the 45p tax rate (which the Tories have repeatedly refused to rule out) will happen "over my dead body" and says of the claim that he has gone "native": "If that’s what people think about me, then they are wrong. I am Liberal Democrat – full stop, end of story." 

But given past form, don't be surprised if Osborne ends up walking over Alexander's corpse on his way to deliver the Budget. In July 2011, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said of those calling for the abolition of the 50p tax rate: "The idea that we're going to somehow shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land". But eight months later, Osborne did just that (while failing to introduce the mansion tax that the Lib Dems demanded in return). While there is no sign that the Tories are considering another reduction in the top rate in this parliament (in what would be a pre-election gift to Labour), it would be unwise to take Alexander's word for it.

Asked about the subject on the Today programme this morning, Boris Johnson quipped that "the last thing I want to see is a pointless sacrifice from the Liberal Democrats, let alone the dead body of Danny Alexander" before hinting that the next Conservative manifesto would, at the very least, not commit to keeping the 45p rate. He said: "I can't believe we're going to go into an election with a tax rate so high." Since it's the Mayor's brother, Jo Johnson (the head of the No. 10 policy board) who is responsible for the manifesto, he can be assumed to speak with some authority on this matter. Finally, asked whether Alexander could be thrown over board to allow a cut in the top rate, he intriguingly remarked: "stranger things have happened at sea". 

Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. 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.