Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Lib Dems' £12,500 tax allowance promise is a smaller pledge than it sounds

Inflation alone will ensure that the allowance rises to over £11.3k and minimum wage workers will still be paying tax.

Since the weekend, when the Lib Dem faithful gathered in York for their spring conference, quite a few column inches have been filled with frothy speculation about Nick Clegg’s likely longevity as Liberal Democrat leader. Nothing, however, has been written about the new twist he gave their proposed tax policy (Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack being the honourable exception). Clegg’s remarks may have sounded like a passing aside – but they were fiscally and politically significant.

The context was that Clegg – like Danny Alexander – spent the weekend seeking to highlight the Lib Dems' flagship commitment to remove minimum wage workers from income tax in the next Parliament via a personal tax allowance (PTA) of £12,500. The not-very-hidden-message was that this will be top of their demands in any future coalition talks.

It is an odd policy in many ways. I’ve written before about why it isn’t what it’s billed to be. It’s not a tax cut for the lowest paid (the 5 million lowest earners don’t’ get a penny); nor is it really about lifting people out of income tax (roughly 10 per cent of the cost of the policy goes on this). It isn’t targeted at those on the minimum wage (the clear majority of whom are part-time workers who don’t pay income tax); and it’s certainly not well designed to reach those fabled "hard working families" (just 15 per cent of the gain goes to working families in the bottom half of the income distribution). In a world of Universal Credit (UC), it’s an even more regressive than people realise: millions of low and middle income working families will have most of their gains immediately withdrawn via a lower UC entitlement. And there is no policy justification whatsoever for raising the PTA once again while leaving the national insurance threshold at a far lower level – a point that even senior Lib Dems concede in private. But none of this is new.   

What might have been news, however, was Clegg’s apparent clarification that the aim of Lib Dem policy for the next Parliament is to “stick at £12.5k” (£12.5k being around the earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker in 2015). I’m told this really means setting the goal of a PTA of £12.5k by the end of the Parliament in 2020; in exactly the same way that in 2010 Clegg made an allowance of £10k the lodestar for 2015.

The details really matter here. Reaching an allowance of £12.5k by 2020 is very much less ambitious than moving straight to a PTA of £12.5k in 2015/16, and dramatically less stretching than committing to uprate a £12.5k allowance in line with increases in the minimum wage over the next Parliament (which is the implied logic of the policy). Even without further increases in the PTA in next week’s Budget, or indeed in Budget 2015, we would expect inflation alone to ensure that the allowance rises to over £11.3k by 2020 (the default for the PTA is that it rises in line with CPI). Inflation is the friend of those seeking to boast of a higher income tax allowance.

The extra cost of going from £11.3k to £12.5k by 2020 is about £6bn over the next Parliament (more if UC doesn’t come in). But moving straight to a PTA of £12.5k in 2015/16 would cost over double this amount. And uprating a £12.5k allowance in line with the minimum wage would cost far more still. Indeed, Clegg’s remarks suggests he’s realised that this continued link to the minimum wage, the stated justification for choosing £12.5k in the first place, would not only cost an exorbitant amount, but it would also mean that the Low Pay Commission (who determine the minimum wage) would in effect be in charge of a central element of tax and fiscal policy. And that was never going to happen.

So the defining commitment at the heart of the Lib Dem manifesto is actually likely to be to raise the PTA by a bit over a thousand pounds more than it would have otherwise gone up by over the whole of the next Parliament. Regardless of whether you think this is a smart or silly thing to promise, what is beyond doubt is that it is a smaller pledge than many realise. (And it’s also a different pledge to that being advertised: a £12.5k PTA in 2020 would mean a full-time minimum wage worker will still be paying income tax in every year of the next parliament.) 

Now, £6bn over the Parliament is still an awful lot of money. All the more so when most of the gains go to those households who are better off, and more than ever in a period of sustained austerity when every taxcut will require another tax rise or, more likely, yet deeper spending cuts that will overwhelmingly hit the poor. But the lower than expected cost is highly relevant to potential 2015 coalition talks. It means the Lib Dem tax plans are likely to represent a less insurmountable barrier to a deal with either of the other main parties than some might think. Clegg seems to have watered down his top demand for future coalition talks without anyone noticing.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle