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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.