Proudly trumpeting a tax cut for the rich. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid)
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Budget 2015: The great tax giveaway to the rich masquerading as help for the poor

Raising the personal allowance does not help who it is supposed to.

There is no policy that George Osborne will trumpet more proudly than the increase in the personal allowance: evidence of a Conservative Party simultaneously helping the poorest and rewarding work.

Of course, the policy is a Liberal Democrat one. When Nick Clegg advocated the increase in the personal allowance during a TV debate five years ago, David Cameron said: “I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it.” The coalition has not just lifted the tax-free personal allowance to the Lib Dems’ target, but also exceeded it. Next month, the personal allowance will rise to £10,600 – and there are heavy hints that George Chancellor will today announced a further increase in the allowance in £11,000. In an era when voters are used to broken promises, the policy is a welcome antidote: an example of politicians under-promising and over-delivering.

The only problem, of course, is it does almost nothing to help those who the policy was designed for: those struggling on low incomes. "The UK’s five million lowest-paid employees will gain nothing at all," says Adam Corlett of the Resolution Foundation. Raising the personal allowance is useless for those earning less than £10,600, but much appreciated by the highest earners. Increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 would be worth £28 a year to the poorest 20 per cent of households, but £445 a year to the richest 20 per cent. It is a massive tax cut for the rich masquerading as substantive help for the poorest in society. And increasing tax on the poor is funding it. After today’s Budget, the total cost of increasing the personal allowance this Parliament will be about £14 billion – or about the same as the cost of the hike in VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent, a tax that is as regressive as they come.

In a saner political climate, the coalition partners would be fighting to blame the increase on the personal allowance on each other, not to claim the credit. A policy that is superficially appealing when explained on the back of a cigarette packet is best left there.

Not that other parties have learned the lesson. Labour’s policy to cut tuition fees to £6,000 amounts to an annual £2.5 billion tax cut for City high-flyers, while doing nothing to improve access to universities. The problems with University policy are not £9,000 fees that you don’t pay back if you are not successful, but the derisory provision of maintenance grants and egregious fall in part-time and mature students. But these issues, critically important as they are, did not lead to effigies of Nick Clegg being burned, so Labour have calculated that there is less political gain to be had addressing them.

Even Ukip, those supposed purveyors of home truths, are as guilty of prioritising gimmickry over good policy. While their income tax proposals are couched in the language of helping the lowest earners, they would give an extra £1,143 a year to the richest 10 per cent – and just £35 to the poorest 10 per cent.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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