As I noted before Ed Miliband did, there was one phrase conspicuously absent from George Osborne’s Budget: “we’re all in this together”. The Chancellor’s heavily-trailed decision to reduce the 50p tax rate to 45p means this saccharine phrase has been banished from the Tory lexicon. This was a tax cut for the one per cent.
Osborne’s stated justification for reducing the top rate – that it has raised a third less than expected – will appear odd to voters, the majority of whom support it. If the 50p rate is bringing in less than expected, it’s because of tax avoidance. But this isn’t an argument for scrapping the rate, it’s an argument for clamping down on tax avoidance. Elsewhere in his statement, Osborne declared that aggressive tax avoidance was “morally repugnant”, so why is he rewarding it?
The Budget leaks meant Miliband had more time than usual to prepare – and it showed. His response was the strongest from any opposition leader in recent history. In a memorable piece of political theatre, he asked the frontbench to raise their hands if they benefited from the 50p cut. “Same old Tories” was the line he repeated again and again. Polls show that David Cameron is still seen as out of touch and Osborne’s tax cut provided Miliband with a perfect opportunity to prove as much. The Chancellor may claim that his Budget will raise “five times more” from the wealthy but none of the measures he announced, among them a 2 per cent rise in stamp duty for £2m properties, possess the symbolic power of the 50p rate. Indeed, there was nothing sufficiently newsworthy in the Budget to stop tomorrow’s headlines declaring that the Chancellor has cut taxes for the richest. More than any other single measure, the end of the 50p rate could retoxify the Tory brand.