The Chariots of Fire moment that revealed Gordon’s 10p tax timebomb
The abolition of the 10p starter rate of income tax in Gordon Brown’s last Budget has a special significance in recent Spectator history: coming only a month after our move from Doughty Street in Bloomsbury to Old Queen Street in Westminster, it was the event which made us realise how useful it is to operate within sprinting distance of the Palace of Westminster. There we were, rushing to complete an editorial that had to go to press minutes after the end of the Budget speech; and like David Cameron in his response in the House, we had been momentarily wrongfooted by Brown’s final coup de théâtre, the 2p cut in basic-rate income tax. We were about to say that this was a bold boost to the spending power of families on modest incomes — when our political editor Fraser Nelson burst in, having legged it across Parliament Square in the manner of Eric Liddell, the righteously inspired Scottish athlete in Chariots of Fire whom he closely resembles.
Fraser was clutching the ‘red book’, the volume of Budget detail that is released only as the Chancellor rises to speak — and which Cameron had not seen before he responded. ‘Hold the front page,’ Fraser gasped, metaphorically, ‘it’s a trick.’ Sure enough, the incriminating evidence stared out from a table on page 13: the £8.1 billion first-year benefit of the basic-rate cut was more than wiped out by the abolition of the 10p rate (£7.3 billion) plus some jiggery-pokery labelled ‘phased alignment of higher thresholds’ (£1.1 billion). Thus we were able to declare in our editorial that the tax cut was ‘just smoke and mirrors’; and more importantly we had a sudden, cruel insight into how Brown’s mind really works.