The celebrity ladder theory

It was while we were sitting in a Starbucks in Norwich that the loneliness of David Cameron’s position dawned upon him. It was our second visit to Norfolk within the month for a by-election campaign that had not even officially begun and, despite it being breakfast, his patience with the day had thinned.

“There must be some other f***** who can help out with

the dogsbody work?”

“Not really, DC.”

“That’s pathetic. And unacceptable.”

“More sugar?” Sometimes it can seem that my destiny has been to provide saccharine, in verbal or granular form, for the man who will be this country’s 52nd Prime Minister. Once again, I pushed the bowl towards him and watched him take two cubes, and one for luck.

Acceptable or not, we are where we are at. Dave wanted a new party in his own image and has been granted his wish. The only impediment to his joy is that he is not just chief but only salesman for the project. We have managed to assemble a shadow cabinet absent of all the talents. It is hard to think of a more slothful man on the planet than William Hague – other than Ken Clarke, whose return to politics is beginning to look like his position on Europe: another of his jokes, which no one else understands but which keeps him chuckling for a decade. Little George Osborne is tricky, and the public are wise to it. Maude, Willetts and Letwin are bores. The Theresas (May and Villiers) are best avoided. Gove has gone missing. Hammond is useful only for anaesthetising a Newsnight audience. As for the rest, even I struggle to remember their names, and I advised upon their appointments.

Nor is there likely to be any improvement. David has pulled the doubly alienating trick of demanding his colleagues write hefty cheques with one hand while writing letters of resignation from lucrative jobs with the other. He is, I think we can say, considerably more popular in the country than he is

in the cabinet. Mention this quirk to him, as I did in Norwich, and he comes over all dreamy.

“I know, I know, Gids,” he says. “It is only the truly popular who are unpopular.”

“Run that by me again, DC.”

“It’s complicated, but it’s based on something Simon Cowell told me: if you want to strive for a new level of popularity, you must accept unpopularity from the level you have recently left behind. He calls it his Celebrity Ladder theory.”


“There may be nothing to it.”

And, at that moment, a feral urchin and his sidekick broke through the ropes of the impromptu VIP area, which the staff at Starbucks had kindly assembled for us, and said: “Autograph?”

“Certainly,” said DC, flourishing his Mont Blanc.

Afterwards and, considerately, out of Dave’s earshot, the sidekick turned to his feral friend and asked, “Who was that?”

“That bloke on Celebrity MasterChef last night. Tony Hadley or something.”

An example, maybe, of Celebrity Snakes & Ladder theory.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.