George Osborne speaks at an event in Sydney on February 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Those who pay the 40p tax rate are not "the middle"

Just 15 per cent earn enough to pay the higher rate. Osborne is right to focus on helping the low-paid.

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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