It was unclear whether George Osborne would raise VAT right up until the moment he stood up in the Commons. After all, during the election campaign, the then shadow chancellor insisted he had “no plans” to raise this regressive tax.
Here’s the key quotation:
The plans we set out involved around 80 per cent of the work coming from spending restraint and about 20 per cent from tax increases . . . The tax increases are already in place; the plans do not include an increase in VAT.
Nothing has changed since then to necessitate a sharp rise in VAT to 20 per cent (as Will Straw points out, this was far from an “unavoidable” tax increase). In fact, the deficit, then thought to stand at £167bn, is now £149bn. The grim conclusion must be that Osborne hid this tax rise from the voters for electoral purposes.
There were some key figures, the Lib Dems and Ed Balls among them, prepared to sound the alarm during the campaign. Nick Clegg’s party even released a now infamous poster warning of a Tory VAT “bombshell”. They were right about that but, presumably, never planned to help drop it.
One wonders how Simon Hughes, who last week denounced VAT as “the most regressive tax”, feels today. Will the Lib Dems’ deputy leader have the courage to speak up for his party’s grass roots? Will Charles Kennedy? Will Paddy Ashdown? One hopes so.
There is no doubt that this tax rise will hit the poorest hardest. As the Fabian Society’s Tim Horton has noted, while the richest 10 per cent pay £1 in every £25 in VAT, the poorest 10 per cent pay £1 in every £7.
But not only is this tax hike socially unjust, it is also economically defective. With growth weaker than expected, there are few worse possible responses than raising VAT.
A recent report for the Centre for Retail Research found that raising the VAT rate to 20 per cent would cost each household £425 a year on average. It added that the resultant drop in consumer spending could cost 47,000 jobs and lead to the closure of almost 10,000 shops.
In the Commons, as Harriet Harman attacked the Lib Dems’ betrayal and Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg smirked away, one was reminded of the closing words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Today was the day that the Lib Dems lost their soul.