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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.