PMQs review: A pointless, baseless, but very noisy fight over the 50p tax rate

Both sides know that the top rate of income tax is mainly symbolic

Share
Related Topics

David Cameron started Prime Minister’s Questions by agreeing with Ed Miliband. “I want the richest to pay more in tax.” At that point they could have moved on to discuss something important on which Government and Opposition disagree, such as the Immigration Bill, which will be before the Commons tomorrow. But that is not how PMQs works.

How PMQs works is that Miliband reads out a quotation without saying who said it. In this case someone who said that the 50p top rate of income tax would “have to stay”. If it were a pub quiz, Cameron would consult George Osborne and they would think that it was presumably one of them, but neither of them could remember saying it and so they would guess it was Cameron. That would be the right answer - in 2009 - as Miliband triumphantly revealed before asking his next question. But this wasn’t a pub quiz, it was the holding to account of the leader of the democratically elected government of a medium-sized rich nation, so Cameron ignored the question and said he wanted the rich to issue howls of anguish (or something) “and under this Government they are”.

Then, because this was not a pub quiz, Miliband ignored the Prime Minister’s agreeing with him and asked what he thought was a second wizard trick question instead. This is the old device of asking practising politicians to rule out something that is unlikely but on which they would rather keep their options open. Could Cameron rule out a further cut in the top rate of income tax, to abolish it altogether and return to the system that prevailed for 13 years of Labour government, when 40p in the pound was the highest rate?

No, of course the Prime Minister couldn’t do that. He wanted to play his own round of Guess the Quotation. This produced a wall of jeering from the Labour noise machine, which seems to operate on alternate weeks now. One week Miliband is the soft-spoken statesman; the next he is the point-scoring shouty-man, urged on by the orchestrated crowd noise.

He enjoys the noisy stuff more, and so does his coach and prompter, Ed Balls, who was urging him on. Balls knew that Cameron would conspicuously fail to answer the “will he rule out a cut to 40p” question, because he had tried it out on Osborne at Treasury Questions the day before. But this is all just games, because if Balls had been asked - without any of the theatrical build-up - if he would rule out the next Labour government cutting it to 40p, he would have dodged the question too. No Chancellor or Shadow Chancellor would normally limit his or her room for manoeuvre in that way.

Miliband and Balls seemed to be genuinely pleased with themselves today. They usually start the session by pretending to chat in a friendly way while the Prime Minister takes his first question from a backbencher, but this time they seemed to be egging each other on, eyes shining. Just as, on the other side, Osborne was volubly suggesting lines for Cameron to take in reply. After Miliband had finished his questions, he and Balls were engaged in a genuine conversation - you could tell it was not play-acting, because Miliband put his hand in front of his mouth, in the way that American football coaches cover their mouths with their play lists to stop the other side lip-reading them on television.

It is all a game. Both sides know that the top rate of income tax is mainly symbolic. Miliband and Balls want to use it as a symbol of the Tories as the party of the rich. Cameron and Osborne want to tax the rich as much as Balls does, and are embarrassed about the symbol, but can’t back off it now.

So there we have it. Two leaders and their seconds, who may have rather different world views but who disagree about surprisingly little in practice, manage to keep up a noisy public argument for a quarter of an hour - when they could just as well take each other’s position.

 

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat