There is no policy that George Osborne will trumpet more proudly than the increase in the personal allowance: evidence of a Conservative Party simultaneously helping the poorest and rewarding work.
Of course, the policy is a Liberal Democrat one. When Nick Clegg advocated the increase in the personal allowance during a TV debate five years ago, David Cameron said: “I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick…We cannot afford it.” The coalition has not just lifted the tax-free personal allowance to the Lib Dems’ target, but also exceeded it. Next month, the personal allowance will rise to £10,600 – and there are heavy hints that George Chancellor will today announced a further increase in the allowance in £11,000. In an era when voters are used to broken promises, the policy is a welcome antidote: an example of politicians under-promising and over-delivering.
The only problem, of course, is it does almost nothing to help those who the policy was designed for: those struggling on low incomes. “The UK’s five million lowest-paid employees will gain nothing at all,” says Adam Corlett of the Resolution Foundation. Raising the personal allowance is useless for those earning less than £10,600, but much appreciated by the highest earners. Increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 would be worth £28 a year to the poorest 20 per cent of households, but £445 a year to the richest 20 per cent. It is a massive tax cut for the rich masquerading as substantive help for the poorest in society. And increasing tax on the poor is funding it. After today’s Budget, the total cost of increasing the personal allowance this Parliament will be about £14 billion – or about the same as the cost of the hike in VAT from 17.5 to 20 per cent, a tax that is as regressive as they come.
In a saner political climate, the coalition partners would be fighting to blame the increase on the personal allowance on each other, not to claim the credit. A policy that is superficially appealing when explained on the back of a cigarette packet is best left there.
Not that other parties have learned the lesson. Labour’s policy to cut tuition fees to £6,000 amounts to an annual £2.5 billion tax cut for City high-flyers, while doing nothing to improve access to universities. The problems with University policy are not £9,000 fees that you don’t pay back if you are not successful, but the derisory provision of maintenance grants and egregious fall in part-time and mature students. But these issues, critically important as they are, did not lead to effigies of Nick Clegg being burned, so Labour have calculated that there is less political gain to be had addressing them.
Even Ukip, those supposed purveyors of home truths, are as guilty of prioritising gimmickry over good policy. While their income tax proposals are couched in the language of helping the lowest earners, they would give an extra £1,143 a year to the richest 10 per cent – and just £35 to the poorest 10 per cent.