And on it rumbles. Last month’s budget seems to have created more niche-losers than any tax settlement in history. Those who feel deprived are still squealing about it. At PMQs today Ed Miliband took a swipe at the Prime Minister on their behalf.
Billionaires get bungs, grannies get mugged. That’s the headline Miliband was aiming for but didn’t quite find. He adopted his best silent-assassin mode and politely asked the PM to confirm whether or not a bonus of £40k was winging its way into the wallets of Britain’s top earners. Cameron couldn’t switch subject fast enough. The Budget, he claimed, was all about cutting taxes for 24 million workers and lowering corporation tax to make us more competitive.
A blistering exchange of omissions followed. Both men gloated over what the other hadn’t said. Miliband accused Cameron of failing to justify the Budget. And Cameron laid into Miliband for not throwing a street party to celebrate this month’s dip in unemployment. ‘Only this Prime Minister,’ said Miliband loftily, ‘could think it a cause for celebration that over a million young people are out of work.’ And he added his favourite focus-group putdown: ‘No wonder people think he’s out of touch.’
Cameron was full of relish and gusto today. But he’s developing Brown’s habit of straying towards thin-ice claims. He twice stated that the £5.30 rise in the state pension was an increase Labour wouldn’t have delivered. That, scoffed Miliband, amounted to the PM taking credit for Britain’s whopping inflation levels.
Miliband looked vulnerable only once. Cameron had worked himself into a semi-frenzy about Ken Livingstone’s habit of sluicing his income through tax-avoidance filters. ‘The Labour candidate for Mayor,’ yelled Cameron, red-faced, ‘is paying less on his earnings than the people who clean his offices. I think that’s disgraceful! Why won’t he condemn it?’
‘He’s very excited today, Mr Speaker,’ said Miliband coyly, ‘but, in case he’s forgotten, the clue’s in the name. I ask questions and he’s supposed to answer them.’ Well, if the clue’s in the name then ‘Prime Minister's questions’ clearly gives the PM scope to question the man who wants to nab his job. And Miliband failed to respond adequately on the Livingstone tax-shimmy. Several times, in fact — even when prompted from the back benches. Andrew Selous, (SW Beds), cheered everyone up by reminding us how Ken had summarised his tax arrangements in a recent BBC interview:
‘I get loads of money all from different sources and I give it to an accountant.’
Miliband seemed more vigorous and self-confident today than before Easter. A lighter touch was detectable too. And, thank God, he’s dropped his high-minded air of wounded sanctity, like a monk who’s just found a cockroach nibbling the underside of his bread-crust.
He was helped by his backbenchers who sent their finest mums-net shock-troops on an orchestrated mission. Kerry McCarthy, Teresa Pearce and Kate Green all attacked the prime minister for freezing the allowances of mothers and pensioners. It worked, sort of, but these ambushes are severely hampered by the Brownite fiscal language in which they have to be framed. ‘Whacking parents in the wallet,’ is a phrase you could set to music. But ‘removing a few pounds per week from families with children by altering marginal rates of entitlement within the tax credit system’ is a line that turns to dust in the mouth.
The Tory backbenches reminded Cameron that his government is beset with tiddler-tax problems. There were complaints about levies on charitable giving, Cornish pasties, church repairs, (but not alterations), and caravans that move (but not caravans that stay put.)
Wrap them all together and you might, just about, have a big bolus of political embarrassment. But taken individually these issues seem either negligible or silly. A LibDem backbencher — quite a rarity these days — tried to embarrass Cameron by pointing out that pasties are now subject to VAT but caviar isn’t.
Surely Cameron isn’t going to let his government drift into danger because of a few pennies on a pie?