There is more than one way to get companies to pay tax

The Third Way is a load of old tosh. A slogan without substance; a sentimental impulse

HAVING JUST returned from seven years away (did you miss me?) I've been trying to apply a Rip van Winkle principle to coming home. I've been trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes and take in a strange world of new colours and unexpected sandwiches, and violently fashionable young people with ugly hair.

There are just two items in my notebook. Teabag technology has changed - we now have pyramid-shaped teabags. And on television there's a chat show where the audience puts their underwear into a drum and the host pulls items out with a pair of laundry tongs and makes the owners own up to them.

Otherwise, in the beginnings of this post-Blair era, with the Cool Britannia backlash settling in, the country looks very much as it did all those years ago; perhaps people are writing more books than you'd want to read, and it's true you have to bring the papers back from the shop in a front- end loader - but these aren't exactly structural changes to the national character.

There is one other thing too big to get into a notebook. There is the Government.There is this popular Labour government peopled - if politicians can be said to be people - with popular public figures. The public like their leaders. That's such a strange idea. Surely it's delusional - this is still Britain after all.

What is the cause of this popularity, apart from the faults of their opposition? The answer I get is this Third Way thing.

In the beginning there was the First Way, which no one seriously questioned for a few hundred years because it worked so well.

Then there was the Second Way, which no one talks about because it didn't work at all.

Now there's the Third Way, which no one thinks about because it doesn't exist.

Yes, I've taken the trouble to look at this founding principle of the Government and can say without fear of contradiction that it's a load of old tosh. It's a slogan without substance; it's not a philosophy or a mood, it's a sentimental impulse, a punchline to a joke not made up yet.

It's neither the fire of capitalism nor the ice of communism, but essentially it is whatever the Prime Minister wants to say it is. To that extent, the Third Way will be familiar to the uniformed leaders of small South American countries. However, the caring contradiction of capitalism and high tax rates will need to be re-packaged next year when the global economy develops more obvious symptoms of its withering disease.

Then it'll be the Fourth Way. This way will be the same as the Third Way except without its ideological rigour.

In the Fourth Way, a business-friendly government will be led by a new Minister of Trade and Industry. Zoe Ball will be brought into cabinet charged with offering breakfast to industry leaders at traffic lights; she will stop them complaining about sterling by taking her top off. Company tax will be raised by nine pence in the pound to pay for it.

When the Fifth Way takes over from the discredited Fourth, public-sector pay will be raised by 40 per cent over three years, and fat cat directors will be required to pay for this out of their own salaries. After state spending has risen to levels even Mrs Thatcher never aspired to, the numberless unemployed will be retrained to interpret their condition as recreational. Company tax will be raised by 30 pence in the pound to pay for this.

By the time the Sixth Way comes along, the Government will be resembling the last act of Macbeth. In a maelstrom of pre-election activity, Viagra will be available to anyone prepared to vote correctly, journalists will be force-fed ecstasy, nationwide parties will be held nightly, human cloning will be illegal, but only in constituencies with a Conservative majority, and Bob Geldof will be forbidden. Or no he won't, he'll be compulsory. And company tax will be raised to pounds 1.50 in the pound to pay for it all.

And if industry is taking a recalcitrant or even rebellious attitude to paying for all this, the new minister of trade and industry will be announced as Vinnie Jones, and he will be charged with the responsibility of taking tax-dodging CEOs down to the caryard and smashing their heads in a car door until the hinges fall off.

Idealism is one thing, but eventually the practicalities take over.

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