I can’t tell you how much I enjoy it when the Tories and the Lib Dems indulge in a little grandstanding before the budget. It’s like watching Laurel and Hardy attempt a polka and if it was spontaneous, well, it really would be funny.
What is amusing is that they think such choreographed manoeuvres come across to the electorate as accidental. Sorry, but we don’t zip up the back.
This time, it’s over the cutting of child benefit for higher rate taxpayers. The Chancellor has knitted his brows and pronounced himself to be worried about the impact on all those poor families with someone earning over £40,000 to be hit when it kicks in next year. Poor wee lambs that they are.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg puts on his best sonorous tones to suggest it is unfortunate but that he and his party are more concerned at raising folk out of paying tax altogether and speeding that along.
Ultimately, we’ll get a lot of huff and puff and very little movement when the Budget is announced, and a lot of handwringing afterwards.
Yes, it is unfortunate that the last great universal benefit is under attack. And yes, it is a tad unfair that the threshold captures some just over the £40,000 limit but exempts two earner families on over £70,000. But tax is like that: wherever you put in a cut-off, it hits some and relieves others. Until a wholesale shift is made to a progressive tax regime, there will always be such anomalies: like that is about to happen anytime soon.
But on the whole? No, I don’t feel sorry for anyone earning over £40,000 nor do I lie awake at night worrying how they will manage the school fees, ballet lessons and Waitrose shop without the additional income.
I’m too busy trying to work out how to manage my own loss of tax credits – and more pertinently, worrying that if it’s bothering me this much, what must it be doing to families a whole lot worse off than me.
Ed Balls, who is beginning to manage to carve out a credible shadow Chancellorship, acknowledged this in his response. Terrible, he said that they are taking child benefit away from some families, but much worse that they are also hitting families on much lower incomes. His estimate is that some families on £17,000 could be worse off by £3,000 per year. It won’t pay them to work, he suggested. And he’s probably right.
There is something nauseating about watching the rich kids in the Cabinet wring their hands over the impact of the loss of child benefit to better off and downright wealthy families while staying schtum on the matter of tax credit loss to families on much lower incomes. And simultaneously pushing through reforms to benefits which will remove several thousand pounds a year from families with disabled children – families who need the income most, who because they have a disabled child, have much higher living costs than the rest of us.
Like I said, I enjoy it but only to a point, given that their actions have dire consequences for many.
This annual tea-dance confirms what those Tory sceptics north of the border have always believed. Nasty party. It also justifies the decision of many voters in Scotland last year to punish the Liberal Democrats for their compliance and complicity in the whole charade. They can push and prod all they like for a faster phasing of the commencement point for paying tax but it is theatrical. It’s their way of assauging their consciences. But what is the point of raising the level at which people pay tax, if it is effectively taken back off them through other methods? If the Lib Dems think this – admittedly welcome – measure is going to redeem them in the eyes of Scottish voters, they are sadly mistaken. The parlance, I think, is dream on.
There will be more like this in the next two weeks. More shuffling from foot to foot. More seemingly chaotic rehearsals from the coalition partners, with legs and arms swinging in the opposite direction. But on the day? It will all go smoothly. They will dance the perfect polka, showing synchronicity in every step. The poor and lowly paid will bear the brunt; the wealthy will largely escape fiscal censure. It was always thus.
Expect low scores and boos from the majority but maximum scores and enthusiastic applause from their rich friends in the shires and in the city.