Ed Miliband has outmaneuvered George Osborne. That may seem a strange thing to be writing less than a week after Labour’s leader tried to clamber into the Dispatch box and hide, rather than dare to raise the issue of the economy at Prime Minister’s questions. But by floating the prospect of axing the 50p tax rate, our Chancellor has wandered blithely into Miliband’s well-laid trap.
Actually, it hasn’t even been that well-laid. For the best part of the year, Red Ed has been trying to re-cast himself as the People’s Ed. He’s felt the pinch of the Squeezed Middle, pointed to the betrayal of “Britain’s promise”, and attempted to align himself with “the many”, whilst David Cameron courted an affluent “few”.
This stuff hardly represents political rocket science. It’s not even political A-level science. Very few election campaigns have been launched with the slogan; “I am committed to governing for the few, not the many”. The Squeezed Middle are merely the latest incarnation of Middle England, Worcester Woman, Mondeo Man and the C2s.
But it’s worked. Osborne, for reasons best known to himself, has fallen for it. Actually, he hasn’t so much as fallen for it, as let out a hearty “Wahoooo!” and leapt right on in.
Let’s think about this for a second. Here are a chancellor and coalition who have spent their entire period in government talking the language of austerity. This time last year, Cameron’s assessment was blunt; “I think people do understand the basic proposition, which is we are living beyond our means. We are spending too much and taxing too little and building up our debts”. As recently as last week, Osborne was himself holding to the iron line; “”We will stick to the deficit reduction plan we have set out. It is the rock of stability on which our economy is built”. To underline the importance of this craggy fiscal outcrop, Britain’s most cherished public services have been consistently hurled against it; police cuts in the wake of the riots, army cuts in the run up to the anniversary of 9/11.
Yet Osborne is now seriously contemplating turning that policy, or perhaps more importantly, that narrative, on its head. Suddenly we are to be told “actually, we are taxing too much”. Or rather, “we are taxing the richest too much”. We are to be told too, “we will not stick to the deficit reduction plan”. Or at least, “we will not stick to the deficit reduction plan where it inconveniences the wealthiest”. And those police officers and soldiers who were told their jobs were being axed to bring the nation’s accounts into balance are to be shown they were, in truth, dispensed with to provide new yachts and private jets for the super-rich.
The Chancellor may point to the statistics, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis that queries whether the 50p rate actually raises any income at all. He may cite the experts, such as the 20 economists who entirely spontaneously wrote to the Financial Times last week calling for the rate to be abolished.
It won’t matter. If George Osborne abolishes the 50p tax rate, he’ll be blown away. For Ed Miliband and the Labour party it will be like shooting fish in a barrel. In fact, it will be more like climbing into the barrel and opening up with an Uzi.
The few instead of the many. The merciless squeezing of the middle. The breaking of Britain’s promise. Miliband won’t have to say, “listen to me”. He will simply say “listen to Osborne”.
Even if Osborne belatedly tries to scramble to safety, the trap will still be sprung. If the 50p rate remains, it represents another U-turn, another victory for the opposition. And not over something peripheral, like forests, or school sports. This retreat will have been conducted over an issue that goes to the heart of the government’s economic agenda, and in full view of a group of increasingly fractious and rebellious backbench Tory right-wingers.
Since becoming Labour leader, Miliband has not been punching his weight. And he wasn’t the heaviest guy in the room to begin with.
Yes, he’s landed blows on sentencing reform, welfare reform and phone hacking. But on each occasion, the punch was delayed, or a follow up to an opening made by others.
The 50p tax rate is the first occasion Miliband has been properly ahead of the curve. He has followed a strategy, rather than exploit an opportunity, and it has paid off. Osborne, by contrast, has been staggeringly inept. Possibly that ineptness has been brought about by complacency; a feeling that Labour’s inability to make inroads on the economy has gave him license to do as he pleases.
Either way, he is now trapped between Miliband and a hard place. Whatever decision is now made on the 50p tax rate, it will cost Osborne dear.