Boris Johnson and George Osborne at the Tate Modern on 20 February, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Boris has outflanked Osborne on the living wage and the top tax rate

The Conservative leadership rival's alternative Budget offers something for the left and the right. 

The next Conservative leadership contest has begun. Not every move that the contenders make should be viewed through this prism. But it is an inescapable reality that one of them will succeed David Cameron before the end of this parliament. 

In the first all-Conservative Budget since November 1996, George Osborne has an opportunity to raise his stock among his party by reducing the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p (as 160 Tory MPs have demanded). The absence of the Liberal Democrats from the government frontbench means that Osborne, one Conservative tells me, has "no excuse not to act". But in his interview with Andrew Marr yesterday, the Chancellor signalled that he does not intend to use his political freedom to cut the top rate on Wednesday. He emphasised that his "priority" was to deliver to "the promises upon which we were elected" (of which a cut in the top rate was not one): a £12,500 personal allowance and a £50,000 40p tax threshold. Osborne appears to have wisely concluded that it would be dangerously incongruous to also reduce taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners while austerity (such as tax credit cuts) continues elsewhere. 

The Chancellor was also notably lukewarm towards the argument that more companies should pay the living wage to compensate those whose in-work benefits will be reduced (as former No. 10 adviser Steve Hilton has recently proposed). He said that "the best answer" to this conundrum was to cut taxes and "to make sure your businesses are growing and profitable and that they can pay good salaries". At no point did he endorse the argument made by the left and, increasingly, the right that cheapskate corporations are denying their workers the pay they deserve.

In private meetings, I'm told, Osborne has consistently dismissed those (such as Jo Johnson, the universities minister and the author of the Conservative manifesto) who suggested that the Tories should annex Labour's policy of providing tax breaks to companies who raise salaries to living wage level. To him, this is statist meddling based on the false premise that firms who can afford to pay more aren't. As the Resolution Foundation's Gavin Kelly writes in an essential blog: "Perhaps the biggest misconception is the voguish notion that if tax credits are cut, employers will somehow decide to offer pay rises to fill the gap. This is saloon-bar economics espoused by some on both left and right. The available evidence suggests that the great majority of the gains from tax credits flow through to employees, not employers."

It is significant, then, that Osborne's most formidable rival for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson, has used his pre-Budget Telegraph column to advocate the changes the Chancellor has refused to offer (for now): a cut in the top rate of tax and the expansion of the living wage. The latter is proposed as political cover for the former: "We think of ourselves according to our relationship with others – and it is simply not fair that a Budget should put more disposable income in the pockets of the rich and less disposable income in the pockets of the poor. And that, alas, would be the result if we were to cut top-rate tax and simultaneously to cut in-work benefits without any compensating improvements in pay." Unlike Osborne, the Mayor of London contends that firms are using tax credits to artificially supress wages: "As for low pay, it isn’t a function of market forces. It’s being propped up by the taxpayer. That needs to end. And that means business has got to start paying its people a wage they can live on." 

It is an appealing pitch that offers something to both the right (a cut in the top rate) and the left (the living wage) of the Conservative Party. The Mayor has cast himself as a "one nation" figure more capable of performing the political gymnastics required to deliver free market policies. Unless Osborne surprises on Wednesday, Johnson's alternative Budget will retain political potency. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.