Good news for houses like these. Photo: Carl Court
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Cutting inheritance tax will be good news for a privileged few, bad news for the rest

Cutting inheritance tax will mean happy days for the top 10 per cent, and nothing to everyone else.

The UK’s archaic taxation system taxes income too heavily but wealth too lightly. This acts as a roadblock to social mobility, which is the lowest in the western world.

And George Osborne is about to make it worse. When he unveils his Budget, the Chancellor will announce an increase in the individual inheritance tax threshold from £325,000 to £500,000, fully transferable between couples. No inheritance tax will be paid on a couple passing on a £1 million house to their children.

Only the wealthiest families will benefit. If the inheritance tax threshold were left untouched until 2018-19, it would only affect 10% of people. While cutting it does nothing for those in the bottom 90%, it amounts to a boon for those inheriting houses worth £1 million to £2.35 million (when the cut will be fully tapered off). Someone inheriting a £2 million home will benefit more than someone inheriting a £950,000 home. Exactly how this policy fits into the ‘One Nation’ playbook is not clear.

Osborne once recognised the great structural flaw in the UK’s taxation system. According to In It Together, Matthew d’Ancona’s study of the coalition, Osborne and Nick Clegg agreed a ‘grand bargain’ in 2012: reducing income tax to 40% and introducing a mansion tax in return. But David Cameron had other ideas. “Our donors will never put up with it,” the Prime Minister said before vetoing the idea.

Now taxation is becoming even more dependent on income rather than wealth. The inheritance tax cut will be paid for by reducing pension tax relief for those earning over £150,000; hardly a group many feel much sympathy for, but the upshot will be to prioritise those who inherit money over those who earn it.

None of this is to say that inheritance tax is perfect. It is “a somewhat half-hearted tax, with many loopholes and opportunities for avoidance through careful organization of affairs,” as the IFS-led Mirrlees Review into inheritance tax noted in 2011. On the grounds of equality of opportunity, it advocated instead taxing individuals at progressive rates on the total amount of gifts and inheritances they received over their lifetime. Radical leftism this is not: Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1972 proposed a similar policy.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative Party’s vice-chair, wants to make the party logo a ladder to symbolise opportunity. Yet the cut to inheritance tax will show no regard for equality of opportunity. Instead, it will entrench a system of taxation that favours those who have inherited money rather than those who earned it. By making property an even more attractive investment for the wealthy, it could lead to house prices rising even more. And cutting inheritance tax also risks reducing economic growth: a Royal Economic Society study three years ago suggested that increasing inheritance tax while reducing income tax could increase growth by creating greater incentives to work.

Eight years after proposing to do so, George Osborne will finally make good on his pledge to deliver on inheritance tax. The party faithful will be delighted. But the risk for the Conservatives is that the combination of £12 billion of welfare cuts with a tax cut for the wealthiest families will exacerbate their image as the party of the rich.

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

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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