Osborne has a mini-mansion tax already up his sleeve

Coalition negotiations over the Autumn Statement are fraught but there is one wheeze that could help the Chancellor.

After November’s rash of mini-elections, the next big item on the political calendar is the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on the economy – on 5 December. (Yes, it is autumn. Winter formally begins with the solstice, but that’s a debate for a different blog.)

The weak performance of the economy means new devices are required if George Obsorne is to show sufficient progress towards his key fiscal targets. That obligation has forced the coalition into another tricky round of tax and cut negotiations. Broadly speaking, the Chancellor wants the lion’s share of the savings to come from the welfare budget. The Lib Dems accept that the benefits bill is too big to be spared but they insist on some form of wealth tax to spread the burden of pain. Their preferred device is the “mansion tax” – a levy on posh real estate.

There are a number of obstacles to this. For one thing, the Chancellor appeared to rule it out before his party’s annual conference. But I’m told by a number of sources that the Prime Minister is the bigger obstacle to wealth taxes of any kind. Perhaps the Chancellor was stung by his misreading of the politics around the 50p income tax rate into recognising the public appetite for conspicuous contributions from those at the very top. David Cameron, by contrast, is said to be stubbornly hostile – something which is causing the Lib Dems considerable frustration.

Usually, people around Nick Clegg are careful not to criticise the Prime Minister too much, saving their darkest whispers for moans about Tory backbenchers who are perceived to be sabotaging the coalition project. The tone now seems to be changing as top Lib Dems mutter about Cameron’s “Shire Tory” instincts and impulse to protect “his rich friends”. In the last couple of weeks I have heard language from people very close to Clegg that echoes the Labour charge that Cameron is out of touch, doesn’t understand how much ordinary people are suffering and is the product of a rarefied, gilded world where his priorities have been warped. As coalition mood music, this is new.

Cameron is also steadfastly refusing to consider any cut in pensioner benefits, having made a “read my lips”-style pledge to protect them in the election campaign. As one government strategist puts it, the PM is terrified of a “split-screen moment” in 2015, with the sequence where he flatly denied he would raid pensioner entitlements in 2010 run alongside some mealy-mouthed U-turn. He will do anything to avoid that hazard.

That doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre. A freeze in the overall level at which benefits are paid (experienced as a cut when inflation is rising) is likely to do a fair amount of the fiscal work. Another idea floating around is to limit the number of children for whom families can claim child benefit. Iain Duncan Smith has floated a cap of two. The Lib Dems seem divided on this. Some hate the whole idea, thinking it redolent of Victorian-era horror at the idea of poor people breeding. Others think it might be necessary but resist the IDS level. One figure close to Clegg describes a two children-per-family benefit rule as “a bit Chinese” – a reference to Beijing’s one-child-per-family rule.

There’s much more of this kind of argument (and briefing) to come in the weeks ahead. I’m told by someone intimately involved in the negotiations that they will “go to the wire”. So I’ll save some more observations for another blog.

One final thought. Someone in Westminster who spends a lot of time looking at fiscal policy, among other things, yesterday drew my attention to a little-advertised consultation the Treasury carried out over the summer.

It stems from a line in the 2012 Budget, in which the Chancellor promised to raise some money by taxing property transactions carried out by “non natural persons”. That means, roughly speaking, companies, investment schemes and “non dom” individuals who are resident abroad for tax purposes. The relevant section of the Budget speech is as follows:

A major source of abuse – and one that rouses the anger of many of our citizens – is the way some people avoid the stamp duty that the rest of the population pays, including by using companies to buy expensive residential property. I have given plenty of public warnings that this abuse should stop.

Now I'm taking action. I am increasing the Stamp Duty Land Tax charge applied to residential properties over £2 million bought into a corporate envelope.

The charge will be 15%. And it will take effect today.

We will also consult on the introduction of a large annual charge on those £2 million residential properties which are already contained in corporate envelopes. And to ensure that wealthy non-residents are also caught by these changes, we will be introducing capital gains tax on residential property held in overseas envelopes.

Then go to section 2.12 of the consultation document and you get some more detail on the “annual charge” on properties worth more than £2m owned by “non natural persons”, due to be introduced next year. The idea is to make it less attractive for the owners of high value residencies to hold them in corporate vehicles. That in turn should make it easier to charge the new 15 per cent stamp duty rate and capital gains tax on any transactions involving those properties.

I can’t begin to speculate about how much money the Treasury would realistically expect to make from this device. I would, however, hazard a guess that it can be spun quite heavily as a tax clampdown on rich foreign tax dodgers and a kind of mansion tax. That would, of course, mean essentially re-announcing something that has already been signaled, but this government is as good at serially re-announcing things as the last one was. Better even.

To form part of a credible “wealth taxes” story it will have to be packaged up with something much more substantial, but it has Osborne wheeze written all over it. The consultation has been done, it hits “foreign millionaires” and “mansions” and it’s been flagged up already so can be squared with the PM. From the Chancellor’s point of view, as headline-nabbing political tactic, what’s not to like?

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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