Two days ahead of the Budget, the Conservative revolt over George Osborne's stance on the 40p tax rate is continuing. The Chancellor's refusal to increase the threshold for the higher rate, in favour of helping low-earners through another large rise in the personal allowance (which is set to be increased from £10,000 to at least £10,500), is enraging those Tories concerned that the party's natural "middle class" supporters are being caught in a tax band intended for the rich.
Owing to successive reductions in the 40p threshold (which currently stands at £41,451, down from £43,875 in 2010), the number of people paying the rate has risen to a record high of 4.4m, up from 3m before the election. Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson have both urged Osborne to act to relieve the "squeezed middle", while the Institue of Directors has warned of the damaging effect on work incentives. The Chancellor's alleged suggestion that the surge in the number of 40p taxpayers would aid the Tories by making voters feel a "success" (which may be partly true) has added fuel to the fire.
But barring a surprise U-turn on Wednesday (not unheard of in Budgets), he will ignore the pleas from right and increase the threshold by no more than 1 per cent, below the rate of inflation. It is far better, he believes, to target limited resources (the deficit is forecast to be £111bn this year) at the low-paid, who will benefit significantly from another rise in the personal allowance. This invites the rejoinder that Osborne chose to cut taxes for the richest 1 per cent by reducing the top rate from 50p to 45p in his 2012 Budget. But it is at least partly to compensate for that kamikaze act that the Chancellor is determined to reposition the Tories as the party for the low-paid
In this respect, Osborne is entirely right: it is not those who pay the 40p rate who are most in need of relief. Far from representing "the middle", those who are caught by the tax band represent the top 15 per cent of earners. The median salary for a full-time employee in the UK is just £26,884, well below the £41,451 you need to earn before paying the 40p rate. And even after falling within its reach, they will only pay the rate on income above this level (not their entire salary) meaning that the effect for many will be negligible. There may well be strong arguments for increasing the 40p threshold (Osborne should certainly be taxing the top 1 per cent far more) but it says much about the gulf between rhetoric and reality that higher rate taxpayers are still routinely described by the media and politicians as "the middle".
As I've noted before, there are better ways of supporting the low paid than raising the personal allowance - which will do nothing to help the five million workers who earn below £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.
But a rise in the personal allowance will at least do something to aid lower and middle earners, in contrast to a rise in the 40p threshold, which would benefit no one but the top 15 per cent.