Labour anger at Tory "trap" over ruling out a future VAT rise

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Fury is rumbling among Labour politicians, as it looks like Ed Miliband was drawn into a Tory "trap" on VAT at PMQs this week.

The Labour leader, during his last skirmish with David Cameron ahead of the election, was caught off-guard when the PM unexpectedly agreed to rule out a future VAT rise.

He wanted a "straight answer to a straight question", and he got one:

 

Miliband didn't have a quick comeback to this, and was unprepared for Cameron's answer. This is because the Chancellor had refused five times to say whether or not he would increase VAT in the future when questioned by the Treasury select committee earlier this week.

When the Tory Business Minister, and ally of George Osborne, appeared on Newsnight following PMQs, he essentially revealed that the Tories had set Miliband up. He admitted that he knew the PM would rule out a VAT hike before Osborne appeared before the select committee:

 

After getting in a muddle over when he had heard about the decision, Hancock admitted:

There was obviously a decision not to announce a new policy in that forum [the committee] but instead to announce it at Prime Minister’s Questions.

He also revealed that he knew the Prime Minister was planning to announce the policy at PMQs.

This has caused outrage from the Labour side, some of whom are accusing the government of being underhand to score political points. The Labour MP John Mann, who sits on the Treasury select committee, told the BBC's Today programme this morning that the Chancellor had misled the committee, bringing the committee system "into disrepute".

It is understandable that such brazenly tricksy techniques would cause anger among opposition members, but the ultimate problem here is Miliband's lack of preparation at PMQs. Following Labour's pledge at the beginning of this week that it would not raise VAT, Miliband knew that he would go hard against the Tories on this subject in the Commons.

The fact that he didn't consider the prospect of the Tories following suit, or use Cameron's surprise announcement to illustrate how the Tories are just following Labour policy, was a misstep. Yet Labour still has the advantage on VAT, which Miliband managed to rescue during PMQs, in that the Conservatives said they had "no plans" to put it up last time round, and broke that promise in 2010.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.